NEW YORK / WASHINGTON - With an increasing number of people from the Chinese mainland moving overseas, Mandarin, or Putonghua, is challenging Cantonese as the dominant language in international Chinese communities.
Cantonese businessman Ah Ken has been widely credited as the first Chinese who permanently immigrated to New York's Chinatown around 1859. Since then, most Chinese immigrants to North America have come from the Pearl River Delta where Cantonese is the dominant dialect.
But that changed 20 years ago when immigrants of Mandarin-speaking Chinese from the mainland began to outnumber those from Cantonese-speaking regions such as Hong Kong and Guangdong. Mandarin could soon eclipse Cantonese as the major Chinatown language.
According to the latest immigration statistics from the United States Homeland Security Department, during 2000 to 2009, the country has seen more China-born immigrants (excluding Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan) than any other decade since 1978 when China implemented its reforms and opening-up policies.
In the past decade, about 350,000 immigrants from the mainland have gained US citizenship with about 600,000 becoming permanent residents, or green card holders. There were only 170,000 Chinese who got a green card from 1980 to 1989. The number climbed to 340,000 from 1990 to 1999.
"I remember in the 1980s I had to speak English to the Chinese waitresses at the Chinatown restaurants here, because they didn't understand Mandarin and I spoke no Cantonese," Haipei Shue, president of the National Council of Chinese Americans (NCCA), told China Daily.
Shue, from Sichuan province, arrived in the US to study sociology in 1987 when Cantonese was the major language in local Chinese communities.
"It's an inexorable demographic change that Mandarin has become the ruling language among Chinese Americans," he said. "Now you can order food in Mandarin in any Chinese restaurant here."
Dong Kun, a senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' institute of linguistics, said Cantonese used to be the leading language in overseas communities due to a large population of Cantonese emigrants. He also said the popularity of Mandarin is good for the promotion of the Chinese culture worldwide.
More parents seem to realize the importance of studying Mandarin. As a result, the New York Chinese School, on Mott Street in Chinatown, has seen more students learning Mandarin than Cantonese.
Of the more than 3,000 students the school enrolled on various programs, most are studying Mandarin. "This is totally different from a decade ago when most people came to learn Cantonese," said Jenny Ye, a staff member of the school.
Chen Weihua and Tan Yingzi