March 27, 2005

Chinese in Law and Order

Television is confusing. I was watching Law and Order a little earlier. It was the episode in which the police find a little Chinese girl and her baby sister alone in their apartment, their mother missing. The story is about what has happened to her. The Chinese-speaking detective and the little girl converse in Mandarin, and so do the little girl and her aunt. Near the end, when they locate the little girl's teenage sister, she and her aunt speak Mandarin with each other. But when the aunt goes into a shop in Chinatown to consult the owner, they speak Cantonese.

This scenario seems unrealistic to me. That the man in Chinatown should speak Cantonese is what I'd expect. Most Chinese immigrants to the US until recently spoke Cantonese. Recent immigrants include many Mandarin speakers, so it isn't a surprise that the girls and their aunt spoke Mandarin. Indeed, just recently I had what to me was the rather odd experience of encountering a little girl, maybe 8 or 9, in a shop in Chinatown, who spoke neither English nor Cantonese. We spoke Mandarin (she rather better than me - yet another area in which age and academic degrees don't help).

What is odd is that the aunt spoke Cantonese with the man in Chinatown. Of course, many Cantonese-speakers learn Mandarin as a second language, so bilinguals are not rare, but it is quite unlikely that a Cantonese person who also knows Mandarin would speak Mandarin with her nieces. People who are basically Mandarin speakers rarely speak Cantonese; if they do it is usually because they have moved to a Cantonese-speaking area. The only other hypothesis that I can think of is that the adults are first-language Cantonese speakers who have learned Mandarin as a second language and who so strongly identify with Mandarin as the language of modernity that they have spoken Mandarin with their children and nieces. I guess that's possible, but I haven't ever met anyone like that. In my experience, Cantonese speakers always prefer Cantonese. They may make an effort to learn Mandarin because they perceive it as advantageous to know, but they would never use it with their children.

So, I'm wondering whether the Law and Order folks had in mind some interesting scenario that would explain the choice of languages in this episode, or whether they just don't know one kind of Chinese from another, or don't think that anyone will notice.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 27, 2005 01:24 AM