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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.