Commentary

Commentary: Alan Wong

Save Cantonese Classes at City College of San Francisco

By Alan Wong

I’m proud to move forward a proposal to protect and establish Cantonese language programs at City College of San Francisco. For years, the Cantonese program at City College has been facing potential cancellation despite its significance to the Chinese community. 

For me, saving the Cantonese program is not only about protecting Chinese culture, language and history. It is also about the very practical need to ensure that our substantial Cantonese-speaking Chinese community has access to public safety, health care and social services. Reduction of the program would be devastating to a population in need of bilingual services.

Unfortunately, the entire Cantonese program was nearly canceled due to budget cuts in Fall 2021. Currently only one Cantonese class is scheduled for Spring 2022. College administrators have explained that Cantonese classes are more likely than others to be cut because the college must prioritize classes that contribute to student outcomes, such as degree or certificate attainment. These outcomes are a consideration because community colleges receive funding partly based on these factors.

Oddly, City College’s Cantonese language program does not transfer to the University of California (UC) for degree requirements and is not a certificate-granting program, while other community colleges with Cantonese programs, such as the College of Alameda and Sacramento City College, have Cantonese classes that satisfy UC general education “language other than English” degree requirements. 

City College also has certificate or Associate Degree programs for Spanish, Russian, Tagalog, Japanese, Italian, German, French and Mandarin.

Despite the threat of elimination, the Cantonese program remains in high demand. Since Fall 2019, all Cantonese classes have been filled beyond capacity. This year, the fill rates for the two classes were 152% and 120%. Students take the classes for many reasons, including overcoming intergenerational language barriers, communicating with their in-laws, reconnecting with their culture, along with developing bilingual skills to serve their communities in public service roles. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Cantonese is the most commonly spoken language by the Chinese population in San Francisco. 

“Health and safety are on the minds of the Chinese elderly,” said Anni Chung, president and CEO of Self Help for the Elderly. “Many are cooped up at home and are afraid to go out. Our senior community is getting inadequate access to social and victim support services due to the language barrier. The elderly often decide not to ask for help or call 911 because they don’t believe that anybody will be able to talk to them. “Helping the younger generation become bilingual will close the communication gaps our seniors face.”

According to the City’s 2021 Language Access Compliance Summary Report, there were 659,184 limited English proficient client interactions across all city departments. Of those, 287,474 (43.6%) were in Cantonese. San Francisco Police Department data indicate that in 2020 there were a total of 9,380 interpretation services provided, but two-thirds of the interpretations were done through a smartphone app. Cantonese is also the second most requested translation for incoming 911 domestic violence calls. Language was the most common barrier to help-seeking for Asian callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

My proposed resolution would set City College on the path to include Cantonese classes in degree- and certificate-granting programs. It would seek to establish transfer agreements with four-year institutions – including the UC system – so that the Cantonese classes can be counted towards a degree. The proposal would also have the College develop a certificate with Cantonese classes. The measure is fiscally neutral and will not generate new costs for the school.

San Francisco is the Cantonese-speaking capital of America. Making our Cantonese classes transferable to four-year institutions, and creating a Cantonese certificate program by following the examples of other colleges, would ensure that our Cantonese classes are counted and valued the way they should be. Language should not be a barrier for victims of crime and immigrants seeking access to city services. Our immigrant seniors, women and families deserve language access so they can get the services they need to live safely and healthily in the City.

Alan Wong is a Sunset District native and resident. He currently serves as an elected member of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees.

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