Before my Gung Gung (公公 grandfather) died, perhaps knowing his health was in decline, he tried to share some of his wisdom with me. My sister and I sat in his Hong Kong apartment and listened while he described at length the lessons he learned in his lifetime. To this day, I regret that I did not fully understand what he was saying.
He died in 2006, just before I started as a frosh at Stanford, leaving my Poh Poh (婆婆 grandmother) as my sole surviving grandparent. Determined to have a real conversation with her one day, I flipped through the course catalog and saw that Cantonese language classes were offered at Stanford. Maybe it wasn’t too late for me after all?
The problem was, the conversational Cantonese classes could not be used to fulfill the undergraduate language requirement (they teach listening and speaking, but not reading and writing). I felt like I had to choose between learning the language of my family, and learning a ‘real’ language – one that fulfilled degree requirements. This didn’t seem fair to me when Cantonese was as much a language as any of the others taught on campus.
Then a message came through my inbox: a Stanford student was petitioning for a 5-credit Cantonese class to fulfill the language requirement and needed to find students who would commit to take the class with reading and writing – a one-time opportunity. If enough students committed, a comprehensive Cantonese course would be offered for the very first time, with support from the Provost. I wrote back immediately; this was my chance.
Those classes with Dr. Sik Lee Dennig turned out to be life-changing. Learning Cantonese changed my relationships with my Poh Poh, my family, and my community. The language helped me access my heritage and unlearn some of the shame I absorbed from growing up Cantonese in an America that didn’t want me to speak it.
I enrolled without realizing how lucky I was: 2006-2007 would be the first and only year that Cantonese courses would fulfill the language requirement since the program first started in 1997. Until recently, I assumed it would also be the last.
In 2017, yet another Stanford student asked why Cantonese courses could not be used to fulfill the language requirement, but no such courses were offered. Then in 2020, COVID-19 budget cuts put Stanford’s conversational Cantonese classes in jeopardy. So I started the Save Cantonese at Stanford campaign to ensure future students would have the same chance I did. And they just might.
Now, with the help of a petition, an ASSU resolution, donor interest, and the launch of the Save Cantonese movement, Cantonese courses at Stanford will finally fulfill the language requirement for the first time in 15 years, putting it on equal footing with other languages taught on campus. The symbolic importance of this change cannot be understated. Students who enroll in First Year Cantonese will now have the opportunity to acquire all four critical language skills: speaking, listening, (and finally) reading and writing. However, one year of Cantonese is not enough to achieve research or professional levels of fluency. Intermediate and Advanced conversational courses allow continuing students to reach higher levels of proficiency and heritage speakers to improve their ancestral tongue. But these classes are not guaranteed for the future. Only enrollment numbers can prove to the University that there is ongoing student demand for Cantonese.
We need Cantonese literacy at Stanford. Learning to read and write Chinese characters benefits students by tying Cantonese to other Chinese languages, and introduces them to rich vocabulary and characters unique to Cantonese that do not exist in Mandarin. Cantonese proficiency is key for scholarship in the context of Asian American Studies, research, and Art Initiatives at Stanford, especially for researchers studying early Chinese American immigrants and Chinatown communities. The unique vocal and rhyming tones of Cantonese and its use of Traditional Chinese characters facilitate the study and interpretation of countless poems and inscriptions found in disparate places such as Angel Island and mining towns throughout the American West.
Cantonese literacy is also necessary to read archival material tied to the Archaeology Center’s San Jose Chinatown Project, to provide effective Hepatitis B outreach at the Medical School’s Asian Liver Center, and to conduct high-quality equity research in the School of Education. High levels of Cantonese proficiency help future social workers, physicians, and lawyers working with immigrant communities. It serves future business and government professionals who wish to build ties with Hong Kong and southeast Asia.
The three Cantonese courses now available at Stanford exist because our community willed them into existence. The addition of a new class that fulfills the language requirement in 2022 builds upon the years of student lobbying that first led to the creation of the Cantonese language program in 1997. But the only way to ensure that these courses are offered in the future is to enroll. We need to show the University that students value minority languages. Minority languages are necessary not just to maintain Stanford’s place as a top-tier research institution, but also for our sense of dignity and belonging: to show that minority languages have a place at Stanford, and that no language is more prestigious or more legitimate than another.
Despite growing up with Cantonese, I remember being told repeatedly that it wasn’t worth learning. They said it wasn’t a proper language, like Mandarin or English. They said it wasn’t “useful”—that it would die out eventually. I heard it from family members; I heard it from teachers; and in a way, I heard it from Stanford too. Here is our opportunity to unlearn that shame, to show that just like every person has a place at Stanford, so does every language, and on equal terms.
The future of Cantonese at Stanford depends on your enrollment. Let’s prove them wrong.
Jamie Tam is a Stanford alumna (Class of 2010) and the Founder of Save Cantonese, an international movement that sustains and celebrates Cantonese language and culture through grassroots advocacy. She is also an assistant professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health. Shawn Lee and Ryan Talvola also contributed to this op-ed.
Shawn Lee ’16 (Matsci) MS ’17 (Matsci) MS ’19 (MS&E) is a Policy Director and the Head of K12-Initiatives at Save Cantonese. While at Stanford, Shawn served as the student representative on the Writing and Rhetoric Governance Board, working on non-tenure track feedback, advancement, and retention.
Ryan Talvola is an undergraduate economics student at UCLA, the Press Secretary at Save Cantonese, and an avid language learner.