04/29/2015 02:39 EDT | Updated 06/29/2015 05:59 EDT

Cantonese Language Could Disappear, Says UBC Linguist Zoe Lam

ANTONY DICKSON via Getty Images
A man holds a sign professing his love for Cantonese, the main language used in the city, as he attends a Hong Kong rally to help stop Mandarin being promoted to the detriment of Cantonese in mainland China on August 1, 2010. Hundreds of protesters rallied in Hong Kong against China's bid to champion its national language Mandarin over Cantonese, a week after a similar campaign was staged in the neighbouring mainland city of Guangzhou. AFP PHOTO / Antony DICKSON (Photo credit should read ANTONY DICKSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The Cantonese language could disappear within a couple of generations because of social pressures and the actions of the Chinese government, according to a UBC linguistics researcher.

Zoe Lam says while there are an estimated 70 to 100 million Cantonese speakers around the world right now, the Chinese government's preference for the Putonghua language — also know as Mandarin — is threatening the survival of Cantonese.

"When I was last in China, there were banners saying, 'Be civilized. Speak Putonghua,' everywhere, including at the airport," said Lam, who recently won UBC's Three Minute Thesis competition.

Cantonese is the traditional language group of southern and southeastern China, including Hong Kong and Macau, and is spoken by many overseas Chinese communities around the world.

Mandarin is a group of languages traditional spoken across the north and southwest regions of China, including the ruling elite in Beijing, and is the official language of the government.

While the two spoken language groups are distinct, they share many words and a closely related written form.

In southern China, the Guangdong National Language Regulations were enacted to restrict the use of Cantonese in the media, she said.

"Many people see that as a threat of cultural genocide," she said.

She also points out that in Hong Kong, where people have traditionally spoken Cantonese, 72 per cent of primary schools now use Putonghua as the medium of instruction in Chinese language classes.

"That's worrying. For a lot of abstract concepts like political science or philosophy, they may only know how to think in Mandarin, and not be able to express themselves very well in Cantonese.

"The chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, took the oath of office in Putonghua, unlike the former chief executives, who did it in Cantonese. Many people think that his language choice was a 'kowtow' to Beijing."

And it is not just in China where the language is threatened, said Lam.

"For example, in Vancouver there are a lot of Cantonese speakers whose children are 'heritage speakers,' which means they learn the language from their parents. But when those heritage speakers have children they will probably speak English to their kids."