On Not Speaking My Mother Tongue

Growing up in Melbourne as an Australian of Chinese heritage, my parents consciously spoke to me in English day and night. Whenever they were deep in Cantonese conversation and I toddled up to them asking for a piece of chocolate, they stopped talking and sternly lectured me in English about the negative health impacts of consuming sugary treats. My parents are Malaysians; their first language is Cantonese and both are fluent in Mandarin.

We can always brush up on our mother tongue by reading phrasebooks, neat language guides that remind us of the must-know phrases in every culture. Photo: Mabel Kwong

We can always brush up on our mother tongue by reading phrasebooks, neat language guides that remind us of the must-know phrases in every culture. Photo: Mabel Kwong

We moved to Malaysia when I was a young kid. On weekends my mum forced me to write elementary Mandarin characters and pronounce them over and over until I got the intonation almost right. When we moved to Singapore three years later, I became too busy keeping up with my studies to continue learning Cantonese and Mandarin. This hasn’t stopped me from being able to understand Cantonese movies and Cantonese/Mandarin conversations in wet markets today. However, I can barely string a proper sentence in Canto. Nor read or write the language.

I’ve always pondered about making the effort once again to learn Cantonese. Why should I bother learning Cantonese? Or Mandarin?

I live in Australia, a country where if you speak only English, you’ll get by quite easily whether you’re studying, making a living or getting around because English is the main language of instruction here. But it’s not uncommon for Asians living in Western countries to be stigmatised for not speaking their native language. Ien Ang has written that a Chinese person’s ability to speak Chinese affects their “Chineseness”, saying:

“In Taiwan I was different because I couldn’t speak Chinese; in the West I was different because I looked Chinese.”

That is, chances are an Asian person who doesn’t speak their own language often feels excluded socially. There have been countless times when I’ve felt left out as a result of not being able to converse in Cantonese or Mandarin. At university, international students said something to me in Chinese, I could only always muster, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”. Then there were times when I hung out with them – also with my friends in Singapore – and never got a word in when they chattered away in Chinese. My friends probably attributed my quietness to my shyness and thought my muteness was normal, though they did let me know I was welcomed to butt in and ask them to translate what they were yapping about.

I’ve also seen Caucasian Australians look surprised when they hear me speak English fluently. And they give me a funny look when I mention I don’t speak Mandarin or any dialects.

Part of me tells me I’m ignorant for refusing to sit down and take the time to learn Cantonese or Mandarin again. Not everyone in this world speaks English. By speaking Cantonese or Mandarin, I’d most certainly be able to help that lost China tourist in the city find their way around Melbourne. I’d be able to carry a proper Cantonese conversation with my Malaysian relatives.

Language is strongly entwined with culture and by not speaking my mother tongue, there’s every possibility I miss out learning aspects of Chinese culture. Chinese phrases can be enlightening, encouraging us to see things from fresh perspectives. A while ago, one of my friends told me this eye-opening translated phrase by Confucius: “Have no friends not equal to yourself”. She explained that it’s a message reminding us to be wary of the company we keep as those around us influence our personalities. And you wonder why Asians keep to themselves a lot.

My Malaysian parents always take the time to explain such Chinese proverbs to me when I hear them and look confused. But they won’t be around forever and there’ll come a day where I won’t be hearing these precise explanations of Mandarin words of wisdom straight from the horse’s mouth anymore. I might never get more accurate, authentic proverb descriptions. Yet another reason why I should start re-learning my mother tongue now.

Weighed up against these pros of learning one’s mother tongue, the defense that English is spoken everywhere by those who don’t speak their native language seems a paltry one.

I don’t feel that I’m less Chinese by not speaking Cantonese or Mandarin. I take an interest in, uphold and respect Chinese values that I’ve learned over the years. But reflecting on the Cantonese phrases that I know, as a person of Chinese ethnicity, I reckon some things and feelings are better expressed in our native language. For instance, saying “Happy Chinese New Year!” doesn’t exactly radiate the same joyful sentiment as saying “Kung Hei Fatt Choi!” – each word in the latter phrase has a distinctive, positive meaning that contributes to the connotation of this Asian celebratory greeting.

Preserving such longstanding articulations entwined within languages only adds to the diversity in this world. As a multiculturalist, I’m all for this. So I guess I really should get around to re-learning Cantonese or Mandarin.

Or maybe both.

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46 thoughts on “On Not Speaking My Mother Tongue

  1. I loved reading this – it made me think about how everyone’s story is so unique. I’m learning Cantonese right now and I’m writing about it and making progress videos on my site (next video due next week!). I’d love to here your thoughts on it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Olly. Everyone’s story is definitely unique – some Chinese people speak Mandarin, some Cantonese, some both and some neither. Hope you’re having fun learning Cantonese. I’ve checked out some of your videos on your site. You’re progressing very well 🙂


  2. My thoughts on this? Learn to speak and discard the reading and writing just as a start,,, Chinese writing is a nightmare while the language ain’t half bad… pretend you’re an illiterate and you’ll be though with 90% of the madness…. after all… all humans TALK first then read later 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s a very good suggestion, Aimer. By learning to speak a language first as opposed to writing it, we might be able to learn more words to get us going with acquainting ourselves with the language. Writing Chinese is especially challenging – so many lines/strokes and you have to write them in a certain order! 🙂


      • Aaaah screw order… they make it easier but they’re not a rule… I tried learning Japanese when I used to like anime and manga… I was successful once I discarded writing, deciding to leave it for later 🙂 You MUST try Rosetta Stone… possibly the best learning tool in the world!


      • China has already simplified its characters to make it easier for non-speaking Chinese people to learn. Frankly I don’t like the Simplified system because it takes away the meaning of the words. But each language has its own uniqueness; a lot of people say the Chinese writing system is difficult but if you practice it won’t be difficult. It’s just like learning French grammar; while pronunciating French words is easier than English, the grammar system is very complicated and the conjugations (personally I find it superfluous) but hey, it’s their system.

        Or even the French counting system, 99 is quatre-vingt dix-neuf which means (4 x 20) + 19. But again, it’s their system. Every language has its own complexities, and if you are already intimidated or put off by its system before starting, you will automatically find it difficult.


  3. This experience goes into another level when the Chinese person doesn’t identify as what could be labeled as mainstream Chinese. My own experiences revealed that Americans thought of Chinese as Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong. Between those three countries, the only languages that they were aware of was Mandarin and Cantonese. Growing up, I spoke neither, as my native tongue is 潮州话。Honestly, as a child I didn’t understand where I came from in this world. I spoke a language that only seemed to exist at home, and occasionally in some businesses in Chinatown.

    I remember as a kid when Caucasian peers asked what I spoke, they judged me as “hey you’re Chinese since you don’t speak either of these dialects.” At the time it was almost heart wrenching because I couldn’t explain much about myself because I knew little about my history. But then again kids will be kids. I couldn’t simply say I came from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Taipei. In fact, my parents are originally from Cambodia, but yet I wasn’t Cambodian either! During most of my childhood and college years, I never felt I fit in with any group. But long story short, I came to understand it didn’t matter. I just had to be comfortable in my own skin and it worked out well – the group eventually found me.

    I did spend some time overseas to learn more about where I came from and where my ancestors.originally came from. In the end it all made perfect sense!


    • Very good point – in the Western world, many think that if you’re Chinese, you speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Hakka and Teochew dialects are usually unheard of and I guess a small proportion of Asians living in Western cities speak these dialects. Some Westerners don’t even know what ‘dialect’ is. You must have felt very lonely being able to speak your native language only at home.

      Yes, kids will be kids. Can’t exactly blame them because kids are young and barely know much about taking care of themselves, let alone the concept of race. Saying you were from Beijing or Hong Kong would’ve meant you were lying to them and to yourself, and if you did lie you might’ve felt you were turning your back on your culture. Nice to see you stuck out all this bullying and accepted yourself for who you are. Thank you for sharing your story 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As promised I said I will comment on this blog. Great blog again Mabel, and I would like to point out Hakka and Teochew-speaking people are quite widespread outside of China – there are many Teochew speakers in Cambodia and Thailand. I was taught how to speak Cantonese when I was a kid and I am fluent in it. I learnt Mandarin at school, but in actual fact I learnt Mandarin more from TV and listening to songs and learnt pinyin on my own. From my personal experience, the ability to read, write, speak and listen to Cantonese or Mandarin have enabled me to understand the history and the many intricate customs and culture. And has helped me understand stuff like slangs, proverbs, sayings, jokes and communicate with parents and older members of the family. Have to thank my parents for spending a lot of their time bringing me closer to my culture. There’s still a lot to learn about Chinese culture and history, it often bemuses me that people who have just lived in China for 3 months claim to me they know EVERYTHING about China and calling themselves China experts. If those people are ‘China experts’ then I am the Goddess of Chinese culture and history.

    There’s different perceptions about what is Chineseness, it could anything, really. Some think it’s as long as you are Chinese by blood and ethnicity, some thing if you speak the language, loyal to the country and practising the culture and traditions. I guess it could be a combination.

    But to me, as long as one isn’t ashamed of being Chinese, then you are Chinese. Some people I know are ashamed (inferior complex?) and I feel sorry for them.

    It certainly takes a long time to learn about Chinese culture and history, but as long as one is interested, you will make the committment. Whether it’s you learnt to write a new word today, or learnt a new phrase the next day, it still demonstrates interest. Baby steps 🙂


    • Thanks Hsin-Yi 🙂 It seems that many today like you are taking the informal approach to learning languages – learning from TV programs, movies, music and the (popular) language phrases commonly uttered by the people around them. There’s just something very non-intimidating about this approach and it’s a very laid-back method to pick up a language. The fact that we won’t be assessed rigorously in the form of exams means that we can learn languages at own own pace and there is no immediate expectation to be perfect at speaking or writing a language. I do agree with you that there is a lot to learn about Chinese culture through language and it irks me too that after spending one study semester in China, some people say they “speak Chinese” and think yum cha and the Lunar New Year are all there is to Chinese culture. Which really is laughable. Commitment and effort to learning is definitely the key to understanding any culture.

      Chineseness is definitely in the blood. And yes, it’s definition varies from person to person. There is nothing to be ashamed of our heritage as everyone is unique.


  5. I find the informal approach more helpful because you get to learn the everyday stuff. I agree, every culture is unique, so we shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed. I think Chinese is a fantastic language, each word has its own meaning and origins 🙂


  6. Really interesting, Mabel. I didn’t realize you weren’t fluent in your mother tongue. I have an American-born Taiwanese friend who lives in San Francisco who speaks Mandarin but when he visits Taiwan, every points him out because of his accent and different clothing style. If I could say one thing… For me living in Taiwan and Hong Kong, even though I’m a white person and no one would expect me to speak Chinese, being able to converse and understand the language would make everything so much more meaningful. In Taiwan especially I felt so isolated. Lost in my own thoughts because I couldn’t talk to anyone around me…. When I dated that Hong Kong guy, I’d listen to he and his friends joke, but when I would ask them what they were laughing about, he had a difficult time explaining things. Some jokes do not cross cultural and language boundaries.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that, while I know it takes a huge commitment and a lot of time, I would agree that it’d be worth it for you to pursue bettering your Canto and Mandarin skills. A new language really opens up a whole new world for the speaker, and you already have a huge head start over me because you grew up hearing the tones!!!


    • Hahaha! I look like an international student, so here in Melbourne practically everyone assumes I speak Chinese and I’m not fluent in English. Doesn’t help that my barely there fashion sense looks not bland Australian but bright, colourful Asian. It’s true that we feel isolated when we don’t speak a certain language and that is all what others around us speak. Lost in your own thoughts unable to talk to them – that’s sort of like you’re being confined to one perspective, your own perspective. It can be frustrating, not to mention boring at the same time.

      I would definitely love to pursue improving my Canto and Mando skills, especially speaking. At this point in my life, time is not on my side. But that’s not to say that I won’t get around to adding to my native vocabulary in the future. Thanks for reading, Jess 🙂


  7. To me, it is always good to know more languages, so I’m glad that I’m proficient in at least 2 languages, in near time, I target to be able to converse in simple German (I could in Japanese, the min basics).

    I think that to learn a language, one got to have a interest in it, otherwise, there is no point even if it is your mother tongue. So I guess the way to start is to be interested in it first?


    • Having an interest in the language would definitely make it more interesting to learn. Having an interest in the culture and people behind the language would make learning it even more fun too. Because ultimately, interacting with native language speakers is a big component in helping us speak the language fluently. I hear German is a difficult language to learn, but I believe you can do it!


      • Yeah, whether it is the interest in culture, songs or food, it helps to motivate one to pearn that language. I know of someone who like French food so much that she went to learn French. German is definitely the toughest among all I had learnt, but at least the pronounciation is easier than English.


  8. Yeah I know right Mabel. I had no idea you were experiencing this as well. I can so relate. It’s like taboo! It’s the typical reaction ‘What your choinese but you can’t speak any choinese??’

    Sigh this world.


  9. Hey Mabel thanks for writing this. It’s been on my mind for a while and was surprised you were experiencing this too.
    It’s like, ‘you are Chinese, but you can’t speak .. Chinese? Is the typical reaction one can receive.

    I plan on testifying Cantonese in the near future. Is this something you can update your progress on from time to time? Haha.

    Plus, your blog posts are becoming more coherent and better topics that matter seem to appear. I really appreciated this one. Good on ya.


    • I reckon we’re not alone and there are many other Chinese people in this world who don’t speak their mother tongue and have to put up with that silly accusation, especially from Caucasians. Though I have had some of my more open-minded acquaintances ask me straight up, “Do you speak Chinese?”, which is great as they don’t assume I speak the language.

      I’m proud of each post that I’ve put up. Nice to hear you can relate to some of them – I like sharing ideas through writing. Thanks for your nice words, Michael.


  10. I have the same problem, except my mother tongue is Tamil. It’s a real pain when other Tamilians realise I can’t speak it fluently.


    • Frustrating, isn’t it, when people laugh or look down upon us when they realise we can’t speak Chinese/Tamil. There’s nothing to be ashamed of not being able to speak our mother tongue. At the end of the day, it isn’t the languages we speak that define us as people (a person) but rather, what we say, our actions and values.


  11. Thank you for this amazing blog! I am a Fijian man and I can’t even speak my mother tongue. What is more ironic is that I’ve lived in Fiji for 18years (I spend a few years in Australia, hence I can only speak English)

    I find it difficult at times when people I’m close to speak in Fijian and I’ll just stand there dumbfounded even when some Europeans come and speak to me in Fijian I get not only shocked and embarrassed.

    I’ve even gotten some hurtful comments by my fellow brethren saying I should be ashamed which makes it even worse.

    I am sort of content with speaking in English as that kind of defines me as who I am. And plus my parents speak to me in English so …yeah. Plus I am well aware of my customs, traditions and so forth.

    Anyways thanks for this article, it really did struck a cord on me but nevertheless it was indeed amazing

    Vinaka xx


    • Thanks, Abel. Glad you enjoyed this post. It’s rare that I hear someone say that they don’t speak their mother tongue although they’ve been surrounded by it for so long, thank you so much for sharing! I totally relate to you when you say you feel embarrassed when someone comes up to you and speaks in your mother tongue. I get people from Malaysia and China automatically asking me questions in Cantonese (my mother tongue) and although I understand what is being said, the reply words never come easily to me. I’ve been laughed at because of this but have learnt to accept this as part of life. Like you, I’m content with speaking English – and those closest around me have no problem with this.

      That’s not to say we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to our mother tongue. I’m sure parts of the language are entwined in significant aspects of our culture. But I’m sure if we do come across something of this nature, we will not hesitate to learn more this little bit of our mother tongue 🙂


  12. I feel like I saw this a little late, but thank you so much for posting this.

    “In Taiwan I was different because I couldn’t speak Chinese; in the West I was different because I looked Chinese.”

    That quote resonates so much with how I’m feeling right now in my life. As someone who’s lived in New York my entire life, raised in a household that spoke English, and growing up with friends that spoke English, I never really embraced my Chinese ethnicity until around high school. It was then when I realized just how little I knew, and it was so hard connecting with classmates because they saw me as a non-Chinese because I only knew English. I’m close to graduating college now, and I still face a lot of problems trying to connect to Chinese and Taiwanese people of the opposite gender because they hear how bad my Mandarin is, and it seems to be an immediate turn-off. I’m naturally attracted to people of my own nationality but from my experiences, (let me know if I’m just generalizing) a lot of Chinese people I meet are in one of two categories:

    1) those who can speak English well but are more interested in meeting people of non-Asian descent
    2) those who can’t speak English well and aren’t interested in meeting people who can’t speak Chinese well

    It’s a sort of lose-lose situation. I’m hoping to visit Hong Kong or Taiwan after graduation so I can learn Mandarin from the ground up, and experience the other half of my nationality, but part of doesn’t know if it is worth it because of the stigma of being Chinese and not knowing Chinese. How open are citizens in China and Taiwan towards people who share the same nationality but don’t understand their language?

    Again, thanks for writing this!


    • Thanks for sharing, Jeremy. Your comment was a great read and you bring up some very interesting points about this subject. I’m assuming the classmates you speak of are or Chinese or Asian descent, seems to make sense that way. So sorry to hear that some Chinese and Taiwanese of the opposite gender are turned off by your less-than-fluent Mandarin. Maybe it’s because Mandarin is the only language they speak and are a bit shy when it comes to communicating with people who don’t speak it fluently. After all, listening to others is a virtue in many Asian cultures and sometimes this can be mistaken as being shy and unfriendly towards others. Which would explain category (2) you suggested.

      Still on category (2), I find that Chinese/Asians who don’t speak English well are more likely to stick with their own racial group or those who speak their mother tongue, especially so with international students from Asia I’ve met at university (or college as you call it!). They tend to have “international student” or “migrant” problems, something us Asians who quite comfortably grew up in the West may not understand – this came up in one of my conversations with a Vietnamese student whose first language is Vietnamese and doesn’t speak English too well. So it might partially be a language barrier and partially a cultural reason why they are hesitant to talk to others fluent in English.

      In Australia, I’ve met Chinese and Asians, male and female, who speak English as a first language and don’t see the need to learn their mother tongue properly. But I’ve also met those who speak both English and their mother fluently. The stigma of being Chinese/Asian and not speaking Mandarin/Asian still exists.

      Not too sure if your question was a rhetorical question, I’m guessing yes. I’ve never been to China and Taiwan so I can’t give you a definitive answer. It seems a lot of us turn to language to connect with our heritage. It makes sense actually. By speaking and understanding our mother tongue, we will be able to converse with our elders of the same ethnicity more fluently and learn so much more about our culture. However, I also think that a big part of learning and getting more closely acquainted with our nationality/culture is to observe what our elders do in their mother land and maybe try it for ourselves. For instance, waking up early for prayers. Sometimes, actions speak louder than words no matter how eloquently you say a sentence.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jeremy. I really appreciate it. Good luck in connecting with your Chinese side 🙂


      • Thank you for the reply!

        You make a great point about actions speaking louder than words–I am guilty myself sometimes of saying things and not following through, so that is one thing I need to work on.

        Part of me wishes that I went to a private university, as I think going to a public university like Baruch College (probably the most well-known city university in NYC) makes it difficult to connect with students as well. More than half of the student body was born out of the country, forty percent are Asian, and almost forty percent of the students are part-time (mostly because of work, and that includes myself). Here are the actual statistics, in case you were interested:


        I do have some great friends that came from overseas, but much of these friendships feel contingent on simply being in the same school. Most of these people have their own cliques from before college, part-time jobs and differing schedules, and especially with a language barrier, I find it really hard becoming a part of the group. I’d hate to be that one guy who forces himself into a clique simply because of a love interest (and I’m sure you know times that’s happened too, and didn’t like it).

        I would much rather get to know everyone naturally, but with both my lack of confidence, and the hesitancy of acquaintances I can’t communicate well with, I feel stuck. It’s why after graduating, I want to travel overseas so I can learn Mandarin or Cantonese from the ground up and learn things naturally, as difficult and expensive it may be.

        I do want to mention that despite my complaints, it is because of how well my parents have raised me that my English is something I take pride in. Sometimes, it does make me a little sad to be the only Asian in my friend group that is taking journalism courses, but at the same time, it makes me feel different! I’m really glad that I found your blog, every one of your posts are so well written and articulate, and they all talk about things I love (music! traveling!) It makes me want to start a blog, though I feel like I’d only be copying your posts, haha.


        • Thanks for the link. Your public university had much more students than I thought – it appears very well known and reputable – and wow, more than half of the student body are of non-Caucasian background. Fascinating to know since this is not often the case in Australia. I agree with you that it’s hard for Asian Americans like you or Asian Australians like me to forge close friendships with Asian international students or migrants. Some of us Asians/Chinese who speak impeccable English have a so-called “Asian English accent” and this makes us sound Caucasian (not entirely the case with me, but with a lot of my Australian-born Asian friends). When some international students/migrants hear this particular accent, they assume we are more Caucasian than Asian and can’t relate to what their going through and their culture. Very judgemental but I guess part of this is due to a fear of talking to someone whom you aren’t familiar with. So they stick to their groups.

          You sound very articulate, it’s hard to see how you’re shy! But then again, writing and speaking are two different things altogether. I think our parents raised us in English for one reason: to make a decent livelihood in the Western world. It’s hard, or harder, to do so in parts of Asia today.

          Thank you very much for your nice words, Jeremy. They mean a lot to me 🙂 Yes, it’s great to be different. As one of my favourite musicians Lindsey Stirling said, “When you do what you love, people are drawn to you”. You can read more about her here and being different if you are interested: https://mabelkwong.com/2013/10/10/how-im-inspired-to-call-myself-asian-australian/

          Very glad that we connected. Seems like we have a lot in common and your thoughts of being Asian in a Western world have been very insightful so far. Good luck with journalism and travels, hope to see you around here soon 🙂


          • Haha, yep! It’s so nice to meet someone who shares the same interests (piano, writing, traveling, final fantasy!)

            Thanks for the link! I saw that blog earlier. I truly admire your strength in acknowledging both your Asian and Australian heritage, it’s a lot harder than people think to be confident in yourself when you aren’t sure how to identify yourself in the first place. Being mixed comes with all sorts of bullying and misunderstanding, and it’s great to see you overcome it all in such a constructive way. You inspire me lots 🙂

            I really do wish people weren’t so judgmental when meeting new faces, but I think some of it is simply human nature. When you grow up with similar peers, it’s hard to move out of that shell and branch out if there’s no real reason for doing so (in the eyes of an international student, there may not be any desire to meet new people if they already have a close group of friends and loved ones). As much as I can put blame on others, part of the blame also goes to myself for being shy as well. I think I have been a lot better recently overcoming my shyness (working at Bloomingdale’s does wonders!)

            And thanks! I’m not sure if you can tell from my posts, but I enjoy writing a lot. I’d love to be an author someday, though right now I get sidetracked a bit too easily, haha. I agree that perhaps our parents saw a stronger opportunity to lead a better life if we mastered English from an early age. However, I think a lot has changed since early childhood–I think a lot of the world’s economic focus has shifted towards Asia, and that’s where I regret not being able to speak Mandarin well.

            Thanks again for all the encouragement, I hope you’re enjoying your lunchtime (it’s midnight all the way over here).


  13. This is a really interesting discussion Mabel – thanks for sharing! I went through this rough period during adolescence where I rejected everything Chinese/Taiwanese. Now that I’m attending a university with a 41% Asian demographic, I’ve come to embrace my roots. I sorely regret not consistently practicing Chinese; in fact, I’m embarrassed that my fluency level is probably worse than that of a 1st grade native Chinese speaker.
    I remember feeling immensely inadequate compared to my parents because they can both speak several languages. My dad is fluent in English, Taiwanese (native language), mandarin Chinese, Japanese, German, and Russian. I’m so jealous! A memory that negatively stands out to me is the time I visited relatives in Taiwan and they chided me for acting to “westernized.” I was in my ‘I-hate-everything-Asian’ phase so I didn’t let it affect me. But after careful reflection, I began to feel ashamed. Like you mentioned, I do believe we shouldn’t let language affect how we perceive ourselves, but it’s hard because language can be a representation of identity.
    My friend who is taking a linguistics class, shared an interesting tidbit with me: that language is actually how people still identity themselves. Anyway, thanks for providing your readers with a thoughtful post! I anticipate reading more of your articles.


    • We seem to have a lot of similarities, Elena! Interesting to hear that you went through an “anti-Asian-culture” phase. It must have been a very emotional phase, with you trying to fit-in with your western friends and putting up with your confused Asian friends and family who are proud of their heritage. I’m pretty sure my Chinese isn’t as good as yours…I can write a few basic Chinese words and my pronunciation is terrible. Hopefully I will be able to take classes in the next year or so.

      “…feeling immensely inadequate….”. Spot on. You summed up my feelings right there about not being able to speak Cantonese or Chinese fluently. Our parents, or the older generation Chinese, usually speak multiple languages and dialects – and they STILL are able to speak each of them fluently today despite migrating to the Western world to give us a better life. Props to them. So I reckon your friend is right: that language is how many people identify themselves.

      Thanks for stopping by, reading and sharing, I really appreciate it. Hope to see you around again 🙂


      • Well Elena and Mabel,

        I can give you a different perspective. First of all, you should not feel ashamed or regret that you can’t speak your original language. I don’t know why many need to regret that they can’t speak it and then blame parents (which I don’t agree with)…if you want to really learn, initiate yourself and you will learn. With an open mind, you can still become fluent or proficient if you put your heart out and still desire to be fluent…it’s never too late to learn. Let’s not get into the rat race of being perfect cuz no one is, and don’t look at what other people have, just look at you and be proud of what you accomplished so far in learning Chinese! It will add up if you expose yourself a little bit from time to time. If there are several Americans/Foreigners learning other languages who never had ANY exposure to those languages until their later years and they still manage to become somewhat proficient, you can do it too. Plus you’ve already grew up understanding it, so it shouldn’t be that much difficult compared to one who never even heard a word of it. Yes it’s easier when young, but it’s not impossible if you initiate yourself. Just to add, I am not I’m not extremely fluent in my parents’ tongue, but can hold a descent conversation. I never really spoken it when I was young, but started speaking it when I was a teen. It doesn’t bother me that I can’t speak like a native. But I know I will still continue to learn it in my life. I am aware of my roots and already formed my identity as a bicultural (though a tad more American)..and that’s more than enough.


        Don’t think that not being perfect in your langauge skills mean you can’t embrace your heritage and culture. There are more than just langauge.


  14. I want to speak Madarin again. I have 2 trophies before, but when I stopped studying due to school work, people started to look at me strangely; thinking ‘Why is she so ignorant?’ It’s hard to cope with, you know? That’s why I need to keep studying.


    • Sometimes a language might not come naturally to us if we’ve not spoken it for a while. It’s probably due to the way our brain remembers things…and it’s always possible to pick it up again. Hope you learn to speak Mandarin again.


  15. Pingback: Are you Illiterate in Your Native Tongue? A Look at Cultural Stigmatisation and Language | Listen & Learn AUS Blog

  16. I recently just came back from a trip in Malaysia – all my family over there speaks mandarin and cantonese. Almost a part of me is so ashamed of myself not being able to speak either fluently, but growing up in Australia and being Asian-Australian I gotta give myself some slack because it is predominantly English speaking and I was never constantly surrounded by my Malaysian relatives growing up. When I was over there, my relatives and cousins always ask me why I can’t speak it – they almost look down on people who can’t speak like four languages (Malay, Cantonese, mandarin and english). And I felt isolated. .Like, do you understand that I was not taught at all when I was younger? My proficiency in cantonese is somewhat of a grade 1, it’s embarrassing! I understood some of their conversations, but when they asked me a question I would reply in English in my head and then try and grasp for the cantonese words. It’s frustrating, but it’s no use complaining! So gotta study up and continue trying my best! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and hardships as well.. 🙂 加油!


    • It sounded like parts of your trip made you question who you are, and sounded like you tried your best communicating with your family in Malaysia. Sorry to hear you felt ashamed and isolated. Sometimes we can only learn so much and take in so much, and not all of us are fluent in more then one language. It can be confusing have two languages in your head – hearing Cantonese, translating it into English, finding the English response and trying to translate it into Cantonese…I’ve been there countless of times and it can be exhausting and disheartening. Thanks so much for stopping by, Isabelle. Much appreciated. Good luck with learning at getting better at Cantonese 🙂


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