Language Education Policy Studies
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China: Cantonese

China, like nearly every country in the world, has more than one language, thus the tension between its official language and dialects is a long-lasting inquiry by researchers and policymakers. Greater China, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, has about 2,000 distinct dialects or subdialects, making it an extremely complex and heterogeneous linguistic context. Since the time of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang (BC 221), Chinese governments have made concerted efforts toward a unified linguistic medium for communication and national integration. For the effectiveness of communication, in 1956, Mandarin Chinese became the standard modern spoken Chinese in mainland China, with the assurance that dialects could be used as well locally.

Cantonese, one of the widest-reaching dialects, is a lingua franca in Guangdong Province and large swatches of southern China, such as the eastern part of Guangxi Province. Outside mainland China, it is spoken as a mother tongue by the majority of the population of Hong Kong and Macau in everyday life, where it is also viewed as part of the cultural identity. Cultural products like pop songs, movies, magazines, newspapers and literature are highly popular among not only the Cantonese-speaking but also the non-Cantonese-speaking populations in Greater China, which helps expand the status of Cantonese as a respected regional variety of the Chinese language. In addition, it is spoken by overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Canada, Brazil, Cuba, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the United States.

Although Cantonese shares much vocabulary with Mandarin Chinese, because of pronunciation, grammatical and lexical differences the two languages are not mutually intelligible. Sentence structure, in particular the placement of verbs, sometimes differs between the two languages. A Mandarin and Cantonese text may look almost the same, but are pronounced differently. The two languages have been described as “roughly as similar only as English is to Dutch.”

Though Chinese government issued the policy that Mandarin should be the medium of instruction in education in1956, LEP didn’t match the practice, esp in province like Guangdong. Before 1980s, Cantonese functioned as the dominant medium of instruction. Language-in-education policies began to change with the political opening and reforms in the 1980s, effective communication has become very important mostly for economic reasons. For more information, click HERE.


Is Cantonese a dialect or a language?

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Citizens Rally in Latest "War To Preserve Cantonese"

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Cantonese-speaking encouraged to aid Games bid





Cantonese language vs Mandarin language (3:05)

Mandarin policy to “Replace”Cantonese language, identity in Guangdong (4:08)

Cantonese is mother language, not dialect ( Hongkong, Macau, Guangdong (2:01)

Cantonese people protest Mandarin in Guangdong to protect their mother language (2;09)

Cantonese is not a dialect


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云南省教育厅 (2005) 《云南省少数民族双语教学情况调研报告》



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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as


Li, Y. (2013). Language Education Policies in China: Cantonese. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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