Student Learning

Helping promote Cantonese through language teaching courses

Photo Credit Raymond Pai
Photo: Raymond Pai


Cantonese is the language of one of China’s most thriving regional and popular cultures and has been the most widely spoken Chinese language in Vancouver until recent years. Despite the fact that there are tens of millions of Cantonese speakers around the globe today, in an increasingly Mandarin-speaking world, many speakers of Cantonese are increasingly anxious about its status, and some experts even say it could begin disappearing within a couple of generations.

UBC has become the first Canadian university to offer for-credit Cantonese language courses, thanks to a $2 million donation to the start an evolution campaign. First-year Cantonese language courses began being offered this fall to Chinese Studies students who are also studying Mandarin. Courses will be expanded with offerings for native speakers or Mandarin and heritage speakers of Cantonese in fall 2016.

Brothers Chi Shum Watt and Alex Watt created the Yip So Man Wat Cantonese Studies Endowment Fund in honour of their mother, Yip So Man Wat. It is one of the largest donations to a language program that has been made to a Canadian university and will enable a dedicated focus on Cantonese language and culture within UBC’s Asian Studies Department.

Dr. Ross King, Head of the Department, says the addition of Cantonese language courses will fill an obvious void in UBC’s Chinese Language program, which is the largest in North America with more than 2,000 enrolments per year in its Mandarin courses. It will strengthen UBC’s Asian Studies Department by offering a more diverse curriculum on Chinese culture.

“It’s important because we want to show our students that China is a really diverse place,” he says. “There are different regions in China that speak different languages. It’s not monolithic.”

UBC is uniquely positioned to contribute to the preservation of Cantonese culture given its highly regarded Asian Studies Department and it’s location in Vancouver, which is home to large diaspora communities from Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking regions.

“Cantonese is an important part of the history of the Chinese in Canada. It’s been spoken in Vancouver as long as English has.”

Dr. King says that given the strong ties between Hong Kong and Canada, the Department hopes that the language courses are only the first step towards broader teaching and research at UBC on the Cantonese-speaking world.