March 28, 2022

Am I Bilingual, Trilingual, or Monolingual?

Learning About the Toisanese Language that I Lost

By Leonard Chan

With the California Association for Bilingual Education Conference happening very soon, I began to wonder if I was truly multilingual or not.

Growing up with parents that were genuinely multilingual, I learned English and Toisanese naturally from hearing the two languages. But I was never really proficient with my parents’ Chinese dialect. I could understand the simple phrases that they would often say to me, but could never really feel comfortable speaking more than a word or two to anyone.

With more speakers of it living in other countries than in China and with the Chinese government’s efforts to homogenize the country’s language and culture, Toisanese may become a dead language someday soon.

Is knowing a dead or dying language of any value? People proficient in Latin probably think so. But what if the language was spoken by people that were considered backward country folk (please read author William Poy Lee’s article on this) and the language didn’t have its own phonetic transliteration system. You couldn’t even teach it to anyone – at least not easily if you didn’t grow up with it. I always thought I knew more about Spanish than Toisanese. At least I had three years of formal education in Spanish in high school, and still see and hear it frequent (even though I don’t remember much).

And what if I didn’t use or hear the Toisanese language anymore? Can I still say I was multilingual?

Bear with me as I try to rediscover the Toisanese language by introducing it to you. I’ll also include some further thoughts about the language and what it means to me.

At the end, I’ll include some websites that may help you learn Toisanese and other languages. For those of you that aren’t interested in Toisanese, but also feel a loss from your ancestral language, perhaps you can commiserate and will feel motivated to learn the language you’ve always wanted to.

Before I go any further, I’d like to emphasize that I am not an expert in Toisanese, languages, or Chinese history. What I write in this article is based on my recent research and sparse knowledge prior to doing this article.

Okay, let’s start with some background information on Toisanese. To Mandarin speakers using the Pinyin romanization, it is spelled Taishanese. Toisanese is closer to how Cantonese speakers would call the language. For speakers of the language, it’s actually closer to Hoisanese or to be even more precise Hoisan-wa (hoi pronounced like hoy; the wa indicates the language of the Hoisan people). Sometimes the language is referred to as Sze Yup (for the four counties that spoke the language – Sunwui, Hoiping, Yanping, and Toisan).

I was just introducing a friend to how Chinese names can be spelled in many ways. Chan for instance has many different spellings – Chin, Chen, Chun, to name just a few. My mom’s family are Homs, but in Cantonese it’s romanized as Tom. See how the H is substituted with the T as in Hoisanese and Toisanese.

This substitution of H sounds with T demonstrates how different some of the words are between Cantonese and Toisanese. Even though Cantonese and Toisanese are from the same offshoot of Chinese (Yue), the two languages can sound pretty different. Usually when I describe Toisanese to people that are unfamiliar with the language, I usually just incorrectly say it’s a dialect of Cantonese to simplify things.

For those of you that are not knowledgeable at all with the Chinese language, the traditional written form was not phonetically based and thus you could have people living in close proximity that spoke drastically different sounding languages (but are able to comprehend each other with the written form) as in the case of Cantonese and Toisanese speakers.

The people that speak Toisanese live in a region of China that is approximately 90 air miles west of Hong Kong, 55 air miles west of Macao, and 65 air miles southwest of Guangzhou (Canton). The distances are an approximate distance from the center of these cities to the center of Toisan. So the region where Toisanese is spoken is significantly closer than the miles I just gave you. The water ways that separated these regions, most likely contributed to how the languages stayed relatively intact and uniquely different from one another.

The vast variety of languages spoken in the Guangdong province is attributable to the influx of migrants to the region from different parts of China throughout history. My family supposedly moved from central China to the Toisan region over 800 years ago. Interestingly, Cantonese and Toisanese have more in common with what was spoken in China a thousand years ago than Mandarin. After the fall of the Qing dynasty (1912), some accounts state that the founders of the Republic of China seriously considered making Cantonese the national language because Mandarin was perceived as an impure form of Chinese. (South China Post article).

The significance of this background information on Toisanese to American history is that a large percentage of the Chinese that came to this country, prior to the 1960s, came from the Toisan region. Just as my ancestors had done over 800 hundred years ago, they participated in another diaspora during the 19th and 20th Centuries that brought them to distant shores all over the world. As they had done all those centuries ago, they took with them their culture and language. But unlike their move to Southern China, where they were able to resist change for centuries, our culture and language is being lost to the boiling pot of American assimilation and the passing of each generation.

When my mom passed away, she was the last one that spoke Toisanese to me. What have I lost?

There is a great deal of scientific research being done on how languages affect the brain in positive ways (Medical News Today article “How language shapes our brains…and our lives”). Some research has even shown a connection with how bilingual people have later onset of age related dementia than people that were only monolingual. What happens if you stop being multilingual? Does the brain atrophy like muscles that aren’t used? Will I start to forget Toisanese like I’ve forgotten Spanish or the higher math (which is also a language) I learned in college?

At least when you learn a living and thriving language like Spanish or Mandarin, you have a utilitarian use for it. Learning those languages will at least allow you communicate and understand the billions of people that use them. But what about languages that are in decline like Toisanese – are they worth learning and preserving?

All I know is that I do miss hearing the language even if I often wasn’t even sure of what I was hearing. I miss hearing my parents, aunts, and uncles speaking the language. I remember listening to the stories they would tell. They often spoke in a combination of Hoisan-wa and English (maybe we could call it Hoi-ish). Hoi-ish was so ingrained in me that when I started going to school, I didn’t realize that some of the words I knew were not in my fellow students’ vocabulary.

The Hoi-ish of my parents’ generation was like music to my ears and brain. I’d have to disagree with William Poy Lee’s characterization of our language as being the “ear-splitting, spitting Toisanese dialect.” Sure it was often loud, but I also heard the language spoken soft and at a low volume too. If it were loud at times it was showing the speakers’ emotions. Sometimes it was in anger, but often times I thought the conversations were quite humorous.

If you read Lee’s article, I think he was relating the Toisanese of his urban experiences of growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The Toisanese of my experience was spoken by Central Valley California Chinese and Chinese relatives that didn’t go around swearing all the time. After all, half of them were our grandmothers, mothers, and aunts that spoke in polite family conversations.

So am I multilingual? Sadly, not so much anymore. When I was taking Spanish in school, I envied the native Spanish speakers that could draw upon their experiences. Why wasn’t there Toisanese classes? Even the Chinese schools that many of my fellow Chinese speakers in San Francisco went to were not teaching Toisanese.

Thankfully, there are some people that are now trying to teach Toisanese over the Internet. I thought I heard that there are even some in person classes being taught in New York's Chinatown. Even though the language may be losing ground in China, there are numerous videos and websites on the Internet that are trying to keep the language alive. Here are just a few of the ones that I found.

If you do a Google search for learning Taishanese, you’ll likely come across the website. They have a pretty good introductory page where you’ll learn some basics. If you want to take their 50 lesson course (click here to see the lesson plan and to register), you’ll need to sign up for it. I have not tried this yet, but it’s supposed to be free.

The website has free podcasts for learning Taishanese that are created by the creators. Each segment is two to four minutes in length and they currently have 84 episodes that go all the way back to February of 2018.

Another website that has some audio for learning Taishanese without needing to sign up is Their phrasebook, numbers, and alphabets sections (I don’t know what this means exactly since Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet as we know it) all have audio. However, their visual dictionary does not appear to have any spoken words (only transliterated words and Chinese characters).

Note that the website has many other languages that it tries to teach – many are Asian including Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Telugu, Sanskrit, Urdu, Korean, Pashto, Cantonese, Malayalam, Japanese, Persian, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Vietnamese, Thai, Tagalog, Indonesian, Malay, Chinese, and Napali. Have a look.

The last one that I will mention is a Toisanese dictionary website – It’s not perfect, but it seems to be pretty functional for translating English into Toisanese. Check it out.

I think I’ll make the effort to look at these websites again even if I don’t plan to ever use Toisanese. When I’m missing my relatives that are no longer with me, I’ll have a listen and try to remember.