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 generations before me speak it fluently every day (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 first language. It could even be our second language. For this post, let’s refer to it as the language from the motherland – the land(s) where our family are from, the language(s) our ancestors spoke throughout centuries.
When we were never formally taught our mother tongue while growing up or in our lives really, chances are we might feel alienated from the language, feel less inclined to speak it. When we’ve never (ever) been constantly exposed to a certain language, naturally it doesn’t have a part in our lives – it doesn’t matter in our lives, hardly plays part. This phenomenon touches upon individual linguistic insecurity and embarrassment; the concept entails substituting speaking another language, sometimes in order to access greater social prestige.
Growing up in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, at no point did my parents insist I learn Cantonese or Mandarin. They speak Cantonese with each other. But whenever kid-me interrupted their conversations, they paused their rapid-sounding Canto and addressed me in English. Unlike my cousins, 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. Even my relatives addressed me in English, albeit in stuttering English.
Where we are at and the company we keep often determines the language we speak, the language we get used to speaking over time and are comfortable with in a moment of time. Our mother tongue may not be the language that helps us survive, assimilate and fit in; we speak what we have to speak to get along with others. In Australia, English is the dominant language spoken; 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.
At the private school I attended in Malaysia, half of my classmates were Westerners from the States, the UK and Australia. The other half were local Malaysians of Malay, Chinese and Indian descent. Our common language was English, so we spoke English. Today, I speak English when I’m at work because my office conducts business in English; I want to be more than good at my job so speaking English it is all day.
Perhaps we actually formally learnt our mother tongue at some point, but it was a subject that we disliked or found it hard to follow along so we disliked it. 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 – similar to how some of us are bad at maths but are forced to learn it. For a couple of years in primary school in Malaysia, Mandarin as a second language was a compulsory subject. Even after practising writing Chinese characters two hundred times in square-box exercise books, I’d forget how to write them the next week. And I didn’t look forward to writing them even more.
And though we may want to learn our mother tongue or any other language, we might not have time to sit down, actually commit to learning and speaking it. The older we are, the harder it is to learn a language: adults tend to be biased towards logical problem solving, tending to treat 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. Then again, each of us are a work in progress and we all have different accents and levels of literacy.
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. Speaking the same language fluently with each other, there’s common ground and an unconscious understanding between each other. 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.’
Don’t speak a language, 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 spoke today. 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.
Part of me didn’t mind because this concept is a reflection of me as an Asian Australian. But the other part of me minded because as an Asian Australian, I also fit the Asian stereotype, in other ways. Just because we don’t speak a language doesn’t mean we don’t associate with the culture behind the language. We may not agree with a culture’s values but we may speak the culture’s language – like how I don’t believe in the Chinese superstition of not using scissors on the first day of Chinese New Year but still wish the folks a clunky-sounding gung hei fatt choi that day.
Consequently, some of us choose not to speak our mother tongue not out of spite but for the reason that we simply don’t have to. We are more than our labels; we are more than 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 certain sides of our personalities, some things are best said in a certain language. Aside from the Chinese New Year greetings, it simply feels right when I address grandma as pópó (婆婆) and grandpa as gōnggōng (公公) as a mark of respect, no matter how unnatural it feels to enunciate the words with my tongue.
In other words, I ‘feel’ my mother tongue within me, but am in a way dyslexic when it comes to speaking it out loud – and I’m much more confident spelling out the Cantonese words in pinyin or alphabet form instead.
Sometimes we don’t know what we are saying until we say it, and the past always has a habit of catching up with us. MRI scans and studies show that ‘lost’ first languages can be unconsciously retained: 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. That is, we don’t ever really lose a language that we’ve been exposed to or never been exposed to at all – or, loosely putting it, we know a language by sixth sense if it runs in the family. Moreover, languages and the way we speak a language is constantly evolving. 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 the Asian grocery store near my place. I decided I wanted a sugarcane cane drink, and took a can to the counter to pay for it. 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. Paused. 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, it opens up the heart – yours and mine – a bit more in the present. And opens up a bit more about ourselves.
Do you find it hard to speak your mother tongue?