A few years back, I tried looking for material on Toisan (aka Taishanese). The most I found was this linguistic paper, Toisan: A Cantonese Dialect by Aaron Lee, which I thought was fairly good in terms of giving you an understanding of the pronunciation in Toisan. What I didn’t know then was that the name of the language was being changed to ‘Taishanese’ (in accordance with the town/city Toisan now being called ‘Taishan’, which is the Mandarin name) and that Toisan, which is the Cantonese name, was/is called ‘Hoisan’ by its own native speakers. I grew up with it being called ‘Toisan’ or ‘Toisan-wa’ (Toisan is also sometimes called ‘Toisan-wa’ to distinguish it from Toisan the place; ‘wa’ simply means ‘language’ used in this context). I did also find the site for Taishan itself, although I didn’t find much use for it in terms of learning Toisan/Taishanese.
Because of the lack of material for learning Toisan, I decided simply to go ahead with learning Cantonese (since it is quite similar to Toisan-wa, and since I already had exposure to Cantonese growing up, as evidenced by my use of “Toisan”). Unfortunately, whenever I speak to my mom, I automatically speak Toisan instead of Cantonese (my mom understands both although she is stronger in Toisan).
I decided recently to try looking for material on Toisan again. Searching for ‘Toisan’, I found again Toisan: A Cantonese Dialect (see above link), but also an amusing blog by Toisan Girl. In one of her recent posts, she writes:
I’m feeling rather disappointed in myself lately about how I haven’t taught much Toisanese to my children, as days and years go by ever so quickly now, and knowing sadly one day our language will die. At least in America, it likely will. Perhaps it may continue for generations in the Hoisan villages back in China. It’s been over a year since I’ve conversed with anyone in Hoisan-wah and I can feel it slipping away from me. As with anything that we value, we need to make an effort to hold onto it, it’s not easy when I have few people to speak my mother tongue with. Maybe I’ll look up the Hoisan society organizations here and check it out. I feel the need to hold on for some reason, maybe it’s simply a comfort mechanism for me to want to return to my childhood roots, to remember the contributions of our ancestry.
While I don’t have children, I can relate to her feelings that it feels like my native language may well die out. But as she points out, it may well continue to thrive back in China, specifically in Taishan where Toisan-wa originally comes from. However, in Taishan they also speak Cantonese. According to Wikipedia’s article on Taishan:
The main language of Taishan is Taishanese. While most Taishanese today use Mandarin in school or formal occasions, Taishanese is the de facto language. Taishanese is a dialect of Yue Chinese, a large group which includes, but is broader than, Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Thus Cantonese and Taishanese are related but distinct. Before the 1980s, Taishanese was the predominant Chinese language spoken throughout North America’s Chinatowns. Cantonese (Guangdonghua) is also widely known in Taishan, as it serves as lingua franca of Guangdong Province.
After reading a bit of Toisan Girl’s blog, I continued searching for learning material on Toisan. I decided to search for Aaron Lee since he wrote that linguistic paper on Toisan. I was hoping that maybe he was doing more research and work on Toisan. Well, fortune favoured me! I found Aaron Lee on Twitter, and from there, I found his blog, Four Counties, where he is writing about Taishanese.
From there I found Stephen Li’s Taishanese Language Home and Hoisanva 台山話 | Seik heng m seik gong by Gene Chin. Stephen Li is also teaching Taishanese on his blog, Toisanese Chop Suey, but the really great find is the Hoisanva English Dictionary from Gene Chin.
From one of Aaron Lee’s blog post, ‘Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course’, I discovered that the U.S. Defense Language Institute was teaching a course in ‘Toishan’ back in the 1960s! They have since made the text material available online. (See Defense Language Institute’s ‘Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course’.) From that post too, I found a link to Ben’s Cantonese Practice Journal: Toishanese (台山話) Textbook Audio, where he has provided the audio material for the Defense Language Institute’s ‘Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course’.
Finally! I have some learning materials for Toisan-wa! Okay, it is called ‘Taishanese’ now, but remember… “You can take the girl out of Toisan, but you can’t Toisan out of the girl.” For me, it will always be ‘Toisan-wa’.
Using the Defense Language Institute’s ‘Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course’ and the Hoisanva English Dictionary from Gene Chin, I should hopefully be able to improve my native language, Toisan, over time. At the very least, it should give me a better understanding of the language than I had when I was growing up. Will I still be studying Cantonese off and on? Sure, but I am definitely going to try out the Toisan materials I found. (I guess I might be flip-flopping between the two, checking the Toisan with the Cantonese to note the differences or to supplement Toisan with Cantonese. Oh, this is complicated!)
“What about Mandarin?” you may ask me.
Well, Mandarin is actually quite different from Toisan, and a lot of native Toisan speakers find Mandarin a bit difficult to pick up. It just doesn’t feel natural to us Toisan people. It’s like it’s ‘Chinese’, but not – this is kind of hard for me to explain. As difficult as it is for a native Toisan speaker to pick up Mandarin, it’s actually harder to go the other way around, that is, from Mandarin to Toisan or to Cantonese. I’d have a much easier time learning Mandarin if I go from Toisan to Cantonese to Mandarin (although that means I’d be in effect learning three languages, even if they are somewhat related; generally Toisan is considered to be a dialect of Cantonese although it’s possible it may have evolved separately).
One final Toisan link I found today for amusement’s sake (you’d have to be Toisan to get the humour or at least have some imagination): Toisan Lives (Check out the T-shirt designs. “Moh yoong” LOL.)