When we are home, the language we speak may come naturally to us. Or not. Depending on who we’re talking to at home, we may switch between speaking multiple languages and that can either be easy, or a bit of an effort.
I was born in Australia, and English is the main language of instruction in this country. It is my first language and that was what I spoke to my teachers and classmates at school. But behind closed doors back then and up until today, I speak a mixture of English, broken English and broken Cantonese; Cantonese is my Chinese-Malaysian parents’ first language.
It can be tricky defining “first language” and “mother tongue”. In general, the terms refer to the language(s) we speak at home, and/or the languages spoken by family. As there are more diverse families around and we get opportunities to live in different places, it’s becoming more common for many of us to speak more than one language at home.
The language we speak at home might be one that we call our mother tongue, the language that has been spoken throughout generations in our family. It can be the language most of our family speaks and we try our best to go along with that whether we are fluent in it or not.
When dinner is ready at home, my mum never fails to yell out in Cantonese, “sek fan” (吃饭), meaning “let’s eat” or literally translated, “eat rice”. When relatives come around, I let them know dinner is ready by saying “eat rice” in Cantonese. They don’t really know English. For my older aunts and uncles who have seen the days of World War II, Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew are the languages they know best. Therefore, when we are home, we might speak a number of tongue-twisting dialects.
We might speak a broken or mangled language at home, either because we struggle to speak that language or it’s the kind of language others at home understand. Lani at Life, Universe and the Lani suggests we may speak broken language with an accent, either an accent not usually associated with that language or an accent that is typically associated with that language.
When I speak English with my mum, I tend not to speak grammatically correct Australian English. After all, she struggles to understand the news on Australian TV, constantly asking me what the newsreaders are saying. Malaysian English or Manglish comes more naturally to her, that is English with Malay (and Chinese and other dialects) words thrown in the mix. As such, sometimes we speak a “shared language” at home so we can all get along, which may not necessarily be anyone’s mother tongue.
To some, English is a classy language that arguably gets one ahead in this world, and hence spoken at home. When my dad overhears me speaking Manglish to my brother these days, he goes, “You’re Aussie. Speak proper English. Or else the Australians will laugh at you” (which is ironic given Manglish is what I often speak to my mum). Sometimes we are taught and spoken to in a certain language at home because our parents want us to learn a language that helps us fit in with the outside world – we speak a language at home because we have to.
At home, we might be comfortable swearing and letting our language rip. We might let curse words fly behind closed doors in the language that comes most naturally to us. As Marta Lives In China pointed out, in China euphemisms shape insults. Growing up, I heard my Chinese-Malaysian parents openly insulting family at home using the Cantonese phrase “Zam lei gor sei yan tau” (砧你個死人頭, trans. “cut off your stupid/dead head”) when the latter did something wrong.
Depending on where we are and where we’re at, we can pick up languages over time and the language(s) we speak at home can change. Based on the 2011 Census, today Australians speak over 200 languages and more than 650,000 speak Chinese languages at home. On discovering ourselves, writer Rita Mae Brown said:
“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going?”
There is every chance the language we think in at home – and anywhere else – contrasts to the language we speak. Perhaps we silently go back and forth between languages in our heads every day at home. When my mum speaks Cantonese, in a split second my head translates what she says into English, and then I take a second to formulate it all into Cantonese before verbalising my response slowly.
Similarly, reading is akin to speaking. When we read, we essentially translate the words on text in our heads to make sense of them. We silently speak in our heads with our inner voice if we aren’t whispering the words out loud – we still unconsciously “speak” texts in accents that we are most comfortable with. When I read English texts, the words echo in my head in a Malaysian voice. Sometimes a language rubs off on us more than we think.
Unless we’re monolingual, the language we speak at home may not necessarily be a language we’re comfortable speaking outside. It could be because we stutter speaking it or no one outside our family speaks it, so it’s common sense to speak another language and get along with the world. Sharing David Bowie’s sentiments on moving around, artist Edmund de Waal said:
“With languages, you can move from one social situation to another. With languages, you are at home anywhere.”
Some feelings are better expressed in certain languages, and the language we speak in a given moment says something about us. No matter how bad I am at speaking Cantonese, I don’t think twice about speaking another language to my mum. I’ve also never felt embarrassed speaking Manglish, grammatically correct English at home or in public. It’s what makes me, me.
Switching between speaking different languages at home, and outside, can be challenging. But you get used to it.
What language(s) do you speak at home?