4 Dec 2015
Dr Robert Sanders's view in his opinion article "What is Chinese?" is correct but only in a limited sense.
It ignored a basic fact that, unlike the hypothetical example he gave in Europe, Chinese speakers of different dialects have always shared the same written language. Surely, he may argue the difference between simplified and traditional characters but it is not the issue here. The issue here is how many people in New Zealand speak Chinese and that brings us the intrinsic question: "what is Chinese?"
My take is Statistics NZ should improve on its Census 2013 and work out a system of classification that enables languages to be either grouped or looked at individually. However, Dr Sanders seemed to examine the "linguistic distance" between Beijing Mandarin and spoken Cantonese and other dialects.
In my view, the 2013 Census on "what is Chinese" is incorrect, misleading and opened a can of worms.
Applying a wrong methodology it found the six most common languages spoken in New Zealand were English, te reo Maori, Samoan, Hindi, Northern Chinese (including Mandarin) and French. Strikingly, Hindi replaces French as the fourth most common language.
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In the 2013 Census, the size of the Kiwi Chinese population stood at about 171,000. However, there were only 89,000 Hindus. Then why did Hindi beat Chinese and replace French as the fourth most common language?
Or the question itself is fundamentally wrong as Hindus are not necessarily Hindi speakers. A Hindu from Singapore for example will speak Tamil and a Hindu from Gujarat will most likely speak Punjabi.
And that is exactly my point and in the context of the "official" Chinese language, Mandarin and Cantonese are inseparable.
Question 13 of Census 2013 asks: "In which language(s) could you have a conversation about a lot of everyday things - English, Maori, Samoan, New Zealand Sign Language and other language(s), for example Gujarati, Cantonese, Greek?"
Using that methodology the 2013 Census found 63,342 people spoke "Northern Chinese" (including Mandarin) and 44,967 spoke "Yue" (including Cantonese).
That methodology is fine if the questions were designed to find out how many dialects Chinese-speaking Kiwis ever used in New Zealand. However, treating Mandarin, Yue or other Chinese dialects as independent languages - hence the misleading conclusion - is deeply flawed.
Standard Chinese, also known as Mandarin and "Putonghua", or common language, is a standard language that is the sole official language of China. It is also one of the six official languages in the United Nations. Needless to say, it is the sole official language of Taiwan and one of the four official languages of Singapore.
Chinese is a pictorial language. The written form is broadly the same but it does not have a unified system of pronunciation. Speakers of different dialects often cannot understand each other verbally (although can still communicate in common writing).
A village separated by a small river may not be able to communicate verbally with people from each side speaking a different dialect.
A single character in written Chinese can be spoken in any of over 1000 different spoken dialects across China.
To date, about 1,500 dialects have been recorded. Cantonese or "Yue" has always been a major dialect but one that is limited in geographic areas of the south-east corner of China including Hong Kong. Other major dialogues include Wu (Shanghainese), Xiang (Hunanese), Pinghua (Guangxi) and Hokkien and Hakka which are popular in southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and like Cantonese, throughout the diaspora areas of Southeast Asia and around the world.
In the 17th century the Ming and later the Qing dynasties attempted to make pronunciation conform to the Beijing standard as the emperors had difficulty understanding some of his own ministers in court. And by early 20th century, Mandarin was adopted as the standard national language.
Choosing Mandarin as the standard Chinese is by no means a perfect solution. It largely reflected a reality that the northern dialect had been the most dominant dialect of Chinese for well over 500 years. It was a choice through a democratic process.
Early Chinese New Zealanders were those Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Guangdong. And Cantonese is undoubtedly one of the most popular dialects in New Zealand and the world. But we should not be carried away by that kind of influence when designing census questions.
As it stands in Question 13, it is similar to making statistical inferences about the difference between "Northern English" (including British, Canadian and American English), "Oceania English", "Indian English" and "South African English". Or, if I may stretch the question a tad further, a difference between Pub Talk and King's English.
As such, English may not be the most widely spoken language in New Zealand as each "dialect" was treated as an independent language as in the case of Mandarin and Cantonese. The values of statistical surveys in our census will therefore be diminished or lost.
As reported in the NZ Herald that a language strategy has recently been launched aiming to "turn Auckland into a trilingual city". It is believed that New Zealand as a country also needs a national languages policy addressing the full language environment across all policy fields.
To do that, we need to ensure that any such statistical data collected is correct, accurate and free from political correctness.
Raymond Huo is a partner at Auckland-based Shieff Angland Lawyers. While an MP from 2008-2014 he was Labour's spokesman for Statistics. He now co-chairs NZ Chinese Language Week charitable trust.