At first, Rao Yuansheng didn't even realize he was doing it. He was sitting in the bustling newsroom of Guangzhou Television, worrying aloud about the declining use of Cantonese here in the land of its birth, and he was speaking in Mandarin.
“I guess I'm just used to it,” he said apologetically to the translator, who was also a native Cantonese speaker. The translator, who had also slid into Mandarin, looked similarly embarrassed. “I think it's because we are in an office environment,” she offered as a half-hearted explanation.
Though it is spoken by more than 70 million people worldwide, and is the third most-used language in Canada after English and French, Cantonese is in trouble here in the city formerly known as Canton.
Five decades of Mandarin being promoted by Beijing as China's unifying common language – combined with the influx of millions of migrant labourers drawn to Guangzhou in recent years by the city's economic success – has helped Mandarin displace Cantonese as the lingua franca.
A similar shift has taken place in Chinatowns across North America, as communities once dominated by Cantonese speakers with roots in Hong Kong adjust to an influx of Mandarin-speaking immigrants from other parts of China.
In Guangzhou, however, Cantonese speakers are beginning to gently push back, hoping to preserve their mother tongue. The Latest Trends in Cantonese, a four-minute spot Mr. Rao hosts during the nightly news on Guangzhou Television, is part of the effort to save Cantonese from becoming just another dialect in the land of its birth.
“It's very important to promote Cantonese, because I'm afraid future generations soon won't know how to speak it,” he said before taping a recent episode.
Is Cantonese the 21st century's Provençal, a language with a great and noble heritage doomed to disappear as the nation-state consolidates itself?