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Popular or Official? January 10, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, French, Hindi, Mandarin, Toronto.

We often choose a language to learn based on its usefulness. But how can we actually measure it?

Last week, I was involved in a rather fierce discussion in a language forum. Someone was planning to move to Toronto and wanted to learn some Chinese. He was wondering which language he should pick, Mandarin or Cantonese.

Here in Toronto, the Cantonese population overwhelmingly exceeds the Mandarin population. In addition, most Chinese businesses here are run by Cantonese speakers. However, my own bet is that Mandarin will become more important than Cantonese in Toronto in the near future, due to the increasing number of Mandarin-speaking immigrants, and that Mandarin is still the official Chinese language.

Is a language more useful if it is more popular (regionally speaking), or more official? One might think that these factors should more-or-less go together. In reality, there are many cases in which they go the opposite. I can easily think of 2 other examples in Canada.

Hindi is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, due to the large population of India. It is the official language in many Indian states. The Indian population has also increased significantly in Toronto in recent years. 2 of my 8 surrounding neighbours are from India.

There are in fact many more Punjabi speakers living in Toronto than Hindi-speakers. Having said that, a Punjabi-speaking colleague of mine once told me that Punjabi speakers can usually understand Hindi. Now, which language would you find more useful in Toronto, Hindi or Punjabi? To me, it is Hindi.

French is in second most popular mother tongue in Canada, according to the 2001 census. I often hear people speaking different languages on the streets of Toronto, but I can hardly hear anyone speaking French. Is French useful in Toronto? I believe it is. French is still the second official language of Canada.

I always keep reminding myself to think ‘globally’. Localizations of languages can never give a clear picture. On the other hand, when a language is made official, there are usually reasons behind it. They could be demographics, economical factors, and even politics. In my own opinion, I believe the more ‘official’ language will ultimately win.



1. Sara - January 10, 2007

When I was deciding which language to tackle next, I debated these questions in my head. I was leaning towards Arabic, which meant I had to deal with the question of which of which dialect. Egyptian’s the most widespread, but Gulf and Levantine are probably the most useful to me career-wise due to the US media’s current attention to those two areas. After much indecision, I finally chose to go in the direction my heart led, which was a completely different direction: Japanese. Japanese was something that I thought wasn’t very useful, but which I had wanted to study since childhood.

Since then, I rearranged my life a little bit, and now I’m in a neighborhood that (unbeknownst to me before I moved there) has a large Japanese American population. I see Japanese newspapers and other materials everywhere I go. Suddenly, Japanese has become incredibly useful in my daily life, more so than Arabic would have been.

I guess my point is that even if there are a billion speakers of a certain language, that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily be useful to YOU in particular. It’s probably better to go with your heart and then find a career in which you can use that language.

2. Scott - January 11, 2007

Personally, I’ve never actually thought about usefulness when choosing a language. I tend to think more about how strongly I’m drawn to the people and culture. Probably this attitude is more typical of a native English speaker, since English is already a useful language in many places.

I do know a lot of U.S. citizens who are now learning Spanish because it is useful, though.

3. 米蘭 - January 11, 2007

What about Portuguese in Macau… now that’s what I call a useless language. Hardly anyone can speak the national language of Macau.

4. edwinlaw - January 11, 2007

Thank you, Sara, Scott, and Milan, for your comments. I think you all make very good points.

‘Usefulness’ of a language is very subjective to an individual indeed. If your other half speaks the language you are learning (I believe this is the case for both Scott and Milan), then it is no doubt very useful to you, and other factors seem minor. On the other hand, popularity and ‘official-ness’ of a language are more objective factors, but yet the 2 factors often contradict each other.

Macau is probably a good example that popularity seems to win over ‘official-ness’. But I believe it has other factors that complicate the whole picture. One of them is the colonization effect and its aftermath. Another is its population size, which is just too small that the language localization has a dominant effect. Just my 2-cents.

5. Kisakookoo - January 24, 2007

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My login is Kisakookoo!

6. Steve - July 4, 2007

Choose a language you want to learn, for whatever reason. I am learning Russian now because I have always enjoyed Russian literature. I learned Cantonese at the age of 55 because I knew Mandarin and felt it was kind of a challenge. i also discovered that once I got into it I found the language pleasant and not ugly, unlike the usual Mandarin speaker’s prejudice that I had before getting started.

There are many different reasons to learn a language. They are all valid.

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