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Why Cantonese First?

Many people ask why the CIS curriculum begins with Cantonese rather than Mandarin.  After all, Mandarin is the official language of China, and with more than a billion people speaking it, it is by far the most spoken language in the world.

Cantonese, with just 71 million speakers may seem like an unusual starting point.

To understand why CIS begins with Cantonese it is important to understand a few things about dual immersion language learning, the city of San Francisco, and the nature of Cantonese.

While most Chinese speakers in the world speak Mandarin, most Chinese speakers in San Francisco speak Cantonese, and well over 75% of the Chinese speakers in the SFUSD use Cantonese as the home language.  Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong and the southern coastal region of Guangdong in China and in other Asian countries.  Since the middle of the 19th century, Chinese immigrants from the Cantonese speaking parts of China have been immigrating to San Francisco, and while Mandarin speakers are on the rise, Cantonese remains the dominant language in San Francisco.

Rather than asking Cantonese speaking children to set aside their primary language and learn English, dual language immersion allows those children to further develop their Cantonese and become literate in Chinese.  This in turn provides the children of Cantonese speaking immigrants with a better foundation for learning English and other languages.  In addition, developing students' Cantonese language preserves San Francisco's unique Chinese immigrant history and culture, as well as supporting the family's lineage.

English speaking students benefit as well.  By teaching Cantonese in the primary grades CIS is a more attractive school to immigrant families, and the presence of native Cantonese speakers in the classroom enhances the learning of the non-Chinese speaking students.

Another important factor is the fact that Cantonese uses the same written language as Mandarin, but it has more tones.  In Cantonese a word like “tong” can mean candy, sugar, slaughter, soup, or iron depending on the tone that is used.  Cantonese has at least six tones, while Mandarin only uses four tones.  Once students learn Cantonese, the transition to Mandarin is much easier than vice versa.

What Next? Language Pathway

Our school is called Chinese Immersion School and not Cantonese Immersion School for a reason.  CIS provides the first six years of a Chinese language pathway that is intended to continue through the eighth grade.  The goal is that students who continue their Chinese studies in middle school will be trilingual and bi-literate by the time they complete the eighth grade.  The strategy for reaching that goal begins with the dual language immersion with Cantonese and English in kindergarten through the fifth grade. Students will learn Mandarin when they enter the language pathway at Roosevelt Middle School where they will take a Mandarin language class.