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Languages Spoken in Toronto December 10, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Mandarin, Toronto.

After more than a year of waiting, the data finally came out last week. Statistics Canada released the language-related statistics of the 2006 census.

Here are the top 20 languages “spoken most often at home” in Toronto, my home town, and their corresponding head-counts and percentages:

  1. English – 2746480 (55.31%)
  2. Italian – 185760 (3.74%)
  3. Chinese, n.o.s. – 172040 (3.46%)
  4. Cantonese – 166655 (3.36%)
  5. Panjabi (Punjabi) – 132745 (2.67%)
  6. Spanish – 108380 (2.18%)
  7. Portuguese – 108185 (2.18%)
  8. Tagalog (Pilipino, Filipino) – 100420 (2.02%)
  9. Urdu – 98575 (1.99%)
  10. Tamil – 93590 (1.88%)
  11. Polish – 80090 (1.61%)
  12. Russian – 65210 (1.31%)
  13. Persian (Farsi) – 63975 (1.29%)
  14. Mandarin – 62850 (1.27%)
  15. French – 58590 (1.18%)
  16. Arabic – 56155 (1.13%)
  17. Gujarati – 54160 (1.09%)
  18. Korean – 47750 (0.96%)
  19. Greek – 46305 (0.93%)
  20. Vietnamese – 45325 (0.91%)

Here is an interesting point about the Chinese-speakers. The “Chinese n.o.s.” category includes responses of ‘Chinese’ as well as all Chinese languages other than Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Chaochow (Teochow), Fukien, Hakka and Shanghainese. This number just too big for the minor Chinese dialect speakers. Therefore, we would expect most people in this category probably speak a major dialect. Somehow they just put down “Chinese” instead of the specific dialect in the census.

Who would do this? My speculation is that those who can speak Mandarin together with another dialect would have a tendency to do so. On the other hand, those who can speak only one Chinese dialect would more likely put down the dialect instead of ‘Chinese’.

If my speculation is correct, then there are in fact many more people who speak Mandarin than what is shown in the data.

No matter what, if we add up all the people in the ‘Chinese n.o.s.’ category together with those in the Cantonese and Mandarin categories, they make up about 8% of the Toronto population. This is about 1 in 12 Torontonians. This is quite a significant portion, considered only 6 out of those 12 speaks English as their mother-tongue.


The Language of Good December 1, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, French, Toronto.

Since I have joined so many language exchange websites, I am quite used to receiving language exchange requests from time to time. Back in September, I received yet another one. But this time it was a bit unusual.

First of all, she was a native French speaker (bilingual French/English to be exact) asking for a Cantonese exchange. In the past, I often received requests from French speakers wanting English in exchange, or Cantonese learners who did not know French. This time it seemed to be a perfect match. Even better, she lives in my city!

Secondly, this person is no novice to the Cantonese language. In the past, I usually received requests for Cantonese help from people who knew virtually no Cantonese. There was no way we could communicate anything in Cantonese. This time, the person turned out to be the site owner of Cantonese.ca, a website which contains a lot of resources for Cantonese learners. The site has not been updated for a while, and she admitted that her Cantonese was rusted. That was why she wanted to pick up her Cantonese again. Besides Cantonese, she has also studied Dutch, Arabic, and Esperanto.

I later found out that this person was Sonja Elen Kisa, the creator of the language Toki Pona.

Toki Pona, which means “the language of good” in its own language, is a conlang which has only 14 basic sounds and 118 words. It is designed to be a simple language with simple vocabulary. Yet it turns out that with such a small set of vocabulary, it is quite sufficient enough to express a lot of complicated ideas. In fact, when Sonja created the language, she wondered why the vocabularies in our natural languages have to be so complicated.

Toki Pona has since caught the interest of language enthusiasts around the world, and it has also caught quite a significant media attentions, too.

In recent months, I have been communicating with my daughter, who is now 2 and a half years ago. I often have to avoid using complicated vocabulary. For example, instead of saying “fuel up”, I would tell her that our car is ‘hungry’ and needs to ‘eat’. “Turning off something” can be substituted by “putting it to sleep”. Even the concept of death can be conveyed as the person is “no more”.

So why do we need such complicated vocabularies in our languages. This just made life difficult for language learners and lovers like us.

I and Sonja exchanged a few emails and that was about it. She seemed to be quite occupied. I read from somewhere that she is in the process of writing a book about Toki Pona. Last week, I bumped into her again in a Cantonese Meetup group.

The Doctor’s Office May 18, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Toronto.
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This morning, I needed to call the doctor’s office to reschedule my daughter’s appointment for next week. From the other side of the line came a female voice:

“The doctor’s office…”

Both receptionists speak Cantonese. I usually speak to them in English when booking appointments. But today for some reason, I felt like speaking Cantonese.

“唔該…” (May I…)

“Excuse me, would you speak in English, please?”

Oops, it was the nurse who picked up the phone. I was so embarrassed!

In Toronto, it is of course a normal practice to engage in a phone conversation in English first. You never know what other languages the other person can speak. But if I know the person whom I am calling speaks the language I speak, and I know the person well, it does sound odd if I would kick off the conversation in English.

But then there were many occasions in the past in which I dialed a wrong number and asked for a particular person in Cantonese. Then I was shocked that the other side replied in Cantonese, “冇呢個人, 你搭錯線” (There is no such person. You’ve got the wrong number)!

Correct Pronunciation March 23, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Speaking, Toronto.
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Imagine someone threatens to sue you for pronouncing some words differently.

This actually happened last month in Toronto. A group of Cantonese language enthusiasts held a press conference, complaining the news anchors of some Cantonese channels for adopting a pronunciation standard known as the ‘Correct Pronunciation’ (正音). They also started a petition letter:

“As native speakers of Cantonese, we find the news broadcast harsh to the ear. These awkward-sounding pronunciations are either unheard of or simply not employed in daily Cantonese language use, in settings formal or informal, cultural or otherwise.”

Last week, I had a chance to talk about this issue with a friend who happened to work in the news department of one of the stations. He said the incident was actually more serious that it might seem. He said the group even threatened to take legal action against them! He believed the group was trying to make a big deal out of it so that people would take notice of the issue. In fact, they successfully made it into the many Chinese newspapers, and even the national Global and Mail:

“A dispute over the form of Cantonese spoken by announcers on Toronto-based television news broadcasts that has been quietly simmering the Chinese community in breaking out publicly just in time for the Chinese New Year.”

The so-called ‘Correct Pronunciation’ movement (粵語正音運動) started in Hong Kong in the 1970s by a university professor Richard Ho. The purpose of his language rectification movement was to correct the mispronunciations of many Cantonese words by the general public. This movement was backed by the Hong Kong government and its broadcast station at that time. Unfortunately, Dr. Ho based some of his rules on his interpretation of a 1000-year-old dictionary of Chinese rhymes (廣韻). Some of his suggested pronunciations just sound weird to modern Cantonese speakers.

My friend said even if the group takes legal action, they wouldn’t have chance to win. First of all, their news anchors have not adopted all the ‘weird’ pronunciations from Ho. Secondly, who can make the call of which pronunciation is correct? My friend’s station is a multicultural station, and his colleagues told him that they often have these kinds of complaints from audience of their own languages.

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.

Langauge Tutors in Toronto December 16, 2006

Posted by Edwin in Multiculturalism, Toronto.
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Traditionally, serious language learners would need to live in a foreign country for several months or even several years, in order to dive in and submerge into the other culture. I believe there is a much more convenient way for those like me, who live in Toronto, Canada.

Toronto is one of the few places in the world that truly embrace multiculturalism. There is a variety of ethnic groups living in different parts of the city, and speak different languages. To dive in and submerge into another culture is just a matter of driving down the road.

The cool thing is that, if you happen to change your mind and want to learn a different language, all you need to do is to drive down a different road.

I am also fortunate enough to work in a company that promotes diversity. My colleagues speak many languages, such as English, French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Vietnamese, Korean, Polish, and Italian.

Language tutors are everywhere in Toronto!