Not all of us can speak our mother tongue. Just because we look a certain way doesn’t mean we speak or write a certain language.
The dialect Cantonese runs in my Chinese-Malaysian family. My parents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts and extended family speak it fluently (and Mandarin too). While I have no trouble listening and understanding a conversation in Cantonese, the language doesn’t come easy to me when I speak it.
Defining mother tongue can be tricky as I’ve blogged about here. It can be what we call our native language. Or family language. It could even be our second language. For this post, let’s refer to it as the language from the motherland – the lands where our family are from, the languages our ancestors spoke throughout centuries.
When we were never formally taught our mother tongue while growing up or in our lives, chances are we might feel alienated from the language. We naturally feel less inclined to speak it.
When we’ve never been constantly exposed to a certain language, it might not have a place in our lives. We might feel linguistic insecurity surrounding that language and speak another language instead, sometimes in order to access greater social prestige.
As a kid in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, at no point did my parents insist I learn Cantonese or Mandarin. They speak Cantonese with each other. Whenever I interrupted their conversations, they paused their rapid-fire Canto and addressed me in English and in English only.
Growing up I never went to a Chinese school but attended private schools where English was the medium of instruction. As a kid, English was at the forefront of my mind and naturally on the tip of my tongue, and Cantonese…passed me by.
Where we are at in life and the company we keep often determines the language we speak. This can become the language we get comfortable with speaking over time. As our mother tongue may not necessarily help us assimilate and fit in, we speak a certain other language to get along with others.
In Australia, English is the primary language spoken and learning a second (Asian) language is declining. Some students avoid second-language learning in schools as they worry it could jeopardise their chances of getting into Australian university. In other words, at times speaking our mother tongue isn’t helpful when it comes to making strides in this world.
In school in Malaysia, half of my classmates were Westerners from the United States, the UK and Australia. The other half were local Malaysians of Malay, Chinese and Indian descent. Our common language was English and we spoke English with each other. Today, I speak English at work in Melbourne because my work conducts business in English.
Perhaps we actually formally learnt our mother tongue at some point. However it was a subject taught by rote learning and we disliked that. While one can argue learning language by rote using flashcards encourages us to memorise and ignore the ‘why and how’, a study shows singing foreign language phrases makes it easier to remember a language.
When we’re forced to learn a language, it can feel like a chore and we might never feel drawn to it. It’s similar to how some of us are bad at maths, forced to learn it and hate maths.
For a couple of years in my primary school classes in Malaysia, Mandarin as a second language was a compulsory subject. Even after practising writing Chinese characters two hundred times, I’d forget how to write them the next week.
Sometimes we may want to learn our mother tongue or another language. However we might not have time to commit to learning and speaking it. The older we get, the harder it is to learn a language: adults tend to be biased towards logical problem solving, often treating language learning as an object instead of something to do.
The older we get the more difficult it is for the brain to overcome grammar rules of unfamiliar language – the tongue is wired to pronounce certain syllables. As adults, we might feel we can never catch up to speaking and writing a language fluently, always playing catch up.
Some of us may feel guilty for not speaking our mother tongue. There may be moments where we miss out on connecting with those who speak it and don’t speak another language. When speaking someone’s language with them, there’s often common ground. As Nelson Mandela said:
‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’
When we don’t speak our mother tongue, we may get singled out for ‘if you don’t speak it, you lose it’. When I caught up with a friend from Singapore last year, we talked about the languages we speak. When I mentioned I speak mostly English these days, he mentioned I was a ‘banana’ – Asian-looking on the outside but not fitting the Asian stereotype of speaking my mother tongue fluently.
I didn’t mind because this is a reflection of being Asian-Australian. I then remembered as an Asian-Australian, just because we don’t speak our mother tongue doesn’t mean we don’t associate with the culture behind the language.
Also while we may not agree with our culture’s values, we may in fact choose speak our mother tongue or at least try. For instance, I don’t believe in the Chinese superstition of not using scissors on the first day of Chinese New Year. But I still wish the folks a clunky-sounding gung hei fatt choi that day.
Consequently, some of us choose not to speak our mother tongue because we simple don’t have to. We are more than our labels and the languages we choose to speak, just as we are more than the way we look. We are the language of our stories that we live each and every day.
Then again, as much as culture is language, language is culture. When it comes to expressing certain emotions and sides of our personalities, some things are best said in a certain language. For example, it simply feels right when I address grandma as pópó (婆婆) as a mark of respect, no matter how unnatural it feels to enunciate the words.
In other words, I ‘feel’ my mother tongue within me no matter how bad I speak it.
MRI scans and studies show that ‘lost’ first languages can be unconsciously retained. This research found that when we listen to tones of a language ingrained within our heritage despite not speaking the language, our brain has a higher level of activity.
So oddly enough, we don’t ever really lose a language that we’ve been exposed to or never been exposed to at all. To loosely put it, we might know a language by sixth sense if it runs in the family. Moreover, languages and the ways we speak languages are constantly changing. As T.S. Eliot said:
‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.’
The other day I wandered around an Asian grocery store. I decided I wanted a sugarcane drink and took a can of it to the counter. The elderly Chinese lady behind the cash register scanned it.
‘Yi kuài qián. Nĭ yào sù liào dà (一块钱 你要 塑料袋 / One dollar. Do you want a plastic bag)?’ she asked.
‘Bú yào (不要 / No).’ Without thinking and without missing a beat I placed a dollar coin on the counter.
I left the store. Wondered what I just said.
Sometimes we might not feel the need to speak our mother tongue in the here and the now. For we simply don’t need it. But sometimes we can’t help it and when we do, we open up a bit more about ourselves.
Do you find it hard to speak your mother tongue?