Chinese would be the third most common language spoken in New Zealand (NZ) if the NZ Chinese Language Week Trust goes along with its plan to not consider different Chinese dialects as distinct languages. Trust co-chairman Raymond Huo, a former Labour Party spokesman for statistics, said the ranking order of English, te reo Maori, Samoan, and Hindi as the top four most spoken languages in New Zealand by Statistics NZ was, “incorrect, misleading and deeply flawed”. The distinction between various forms of the Chinese language is a complicated and often polarizing linguistic and political issue. “Treating Mandarin, Yue or other Chinese dialects as independent languages is deeply flawed,” Huo told the New Zealand Harold. “It is similar to making statistical inferences about the difference between Northern English, Oceania English and Indian English, or […] between pub talk and the King’s English. As such, English may not be the most widely spoken language if each ‘dialect’ was treated as an independent language as in the case of Mandarin and Cantonese.”
The New Zealand Census general manager, Denise McGregor, was not outraged that Mandarin didn’t make top three, saying that the goal of the census was not to rank languages in order of popularity, “but rather to build a picture of who speaks particular languages, whether they speak multiple languages, their ages, their birth places and much more.” The Census 2013 question asked, “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?” In the last Census, 52,263 people spoke Northern Chinese which includes Mandarin, 44,625 spoke Yue that includes Cantonese and 42,750 spoke a “Sinitic” language. McGregor said of the 171,204 people in New Zealand of Chinese ethnicity, 45,216 were born in New Zealand and a majority of them were monolingual in English.
Auckland University of Technology’s head of the School of Language and Culture, Sharon Harvey, went further and said that most linguists do consider Chinese dialects as independent languages. “It suits the Chinese Government to say all these languages are ‘only’ dialects but most linguists would say many are languages in their own right,” he said. For example, Cantonese is a language with nine spoken tones but in Mandarin there are four.
David Soh, editor for Auckland-based Chinese language daily Mandarin Pages, said the Census figures for Mandarin speakers were too low to be correct. “The figure that just over a quarter of the Chinese population are Mandarin speakers sounds too low to be accurate or true,” Soh said. “The fact is Chinese who speak Chinese dialects are often also able to converse in Mandarin, but the Census figure doesn’t seem to reflect that.” Collecting this kind of data will require carefully worded questions and a nuanced understanding of both question and answer moving forward.
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