Chicago’s Chinatown is the 3rd largest in the United States, and is currently undergoing a linguistic and cultural shift from Cantonese to Mandarin. The People’s Republic of China standardized Mandarin as the national language in 1955, and now, many more immigrants are familiar with the language.
Immigrants from the northern part of China who speak Mandarin are deciding to settle outside of the traditionally Cantonese Chinatown, distancing the two Chinese communities.
“It’s the cultural background, in addition to the language problem, that makes people prefer one community over another,” [Susan] Ng-Harroun [executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce] said.
While the two language groups do interact at times within the community, such as for Chinese New Year celebrations, the limitations in conversational skills, coupled with different traditions, has led to more segregation than unity.
“The different dialects do reflect some cultural differences,” [David] Wu said. “The Chinese churches, restaurants and businesses outside of Chinatown are all Mandarin communities.”
Business owners see that Mandarin speakers won’t shop at Cantonese establishments. However, little by little, the signage in Chinatown is incorporating more simplified Chinese script, which Mandarin speakers typically read.
Read a full report of the shifting languages in Chinatown in this Medill article. Check out the article’s example of changing signage.