Why I Don’t Speak My Mother Tongue Fluently

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.

The languages we speak, and wish to speak, are a reflection of who we are | Weekly Photo Challenge: Wish.

The languages we speak, and wish to speak, are a reflection of who we are | Weekly Photo Challenge: Wish.

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.

We're drawn to some languages, but not to others.

We’re drawn to some languages, but not to others.

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.

Language is a reflection of culture, and culture a reflection of language. Both reflect the nuances of the heart.

Language is a reflection of culture, and culture a reflection of language. Both reflect the nuances of the heart.

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.’

Our past will always be a part of us. Just like how some languages will always colour our lives.

Our past will always be a part of us. Just like how some languages will always colour our lives.

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?

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212 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Speak My Mother Tongue Fluently

  1. My father’s parents spoke German, Russian, Polish and Yiddish but never taught it to their children or grandchildren because they wanted us to be ‘American’. I am sad not to have learned their languages but I do hear you on the MRI studies that show that ‘first languages’ resonate with us somehow. Whenever I hear their languages spoken, I feel a connection to them. ✌️❤️🐵

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a member of Toastmasters, and just 2 days back a member of our club from Chinese origin spoke about related aspects. In fact, her command over Chinese, Korean, and Japanese languages helped her get a job in a renowned firm early on in her career.

    I would think we should have an advantage if we speak multiple languages, especially the famous ones like Mandarin and French. My mother-tongue Hindi is not used outside of India, so I don’t have any benefit of it anyway.


  3. My Spanish teacher in college said that there are four separate skills in learning a language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It’s not surprising that you’re better at understanding than at speaking Cantonese. They’re two separate skills.

    My husband spoke Hokkien, his childhood language well. He never lost it. But it was never the language of instruction, so I suspect his vocabulary was immature. He liked to read in English and Chinese. His written Chinese was pretty good, but after about the age of twelve, he went to an international school where the language of instruction was English.

    I think it’s unfair and unkind for people to criticize someone for not being fluent in the language of their parents. We all have different goals in life. Although it would be nice to speak many languages fluently, our time is limited.


    • Your Spanish teacher breaks down language learning in a very pragmatic, level-headed way. Some of us might be better at listening, some of us speaking. Some of us might be comfortable doing something over something else.

      Your husband sounds like he valued Hokkien for one reason or another, perhaps because his parents and many in his family spoke it. Maybe each time he went home, he felt like he was coming home to the language. Also, agree with you that our time is limited. All the time I spend on writing could be used to learn a language.


  4. I’ll be back for this but I am dropping by to congratulate you on Lady by the River. I saw a picture of the book in Sherri Matthew’s page and read your name in it. Congratulations! 🙂 I am so happy for you.


  5. Fantastic post as usual, Mabel. I have no second language. I’ve studied both French (as a child) and German as an adult but speak neither fluently. My family is English speaking so there is not a cultural or family influence that you discuss here. It is fascinating and makes total sense that it becomes ingrained and automatic when it is part of your heritage. I love the images you’ve shared here to go with your message and the quotes regarding language. Very educational!


    • Thanks, Lisa. It is great that you know some French and German. If you visited France and Germany, you’d probably find your way around pretty easily 🙂 Glad you like the photos. It takes about a day to pick out and post-process photos for each post 😀


  6. Here, I will speak in behalf of my children. Being an American on their father’s side, they, of course, have English as their mother tongue. But because they are also Filipino because of me, they can also claim Filipino as a mother tongue. Unfortunately, that they cannot do because I have been too lazy speaking twice (in Tagalog and in English) when I am conversing with them. At first, I did not think much about it but now, I am a bit sorry and embarrassed that I did not exert a lot more effort teaching them to learn an important part of who they are. Recently, I have been trying to speak more Tagalog at home so that my children’s minds, especially the younger ones’, will be a little more predisposed towards our language.


    • Maybe your children will catch on to more Tagalog. I am sure they grasp it and at least understand what you are trying to say. After all, they probably are familiar with some Filo food… They can’t escape the language 😉


  7. Great write-up Mabel! Answering your question…do I find it hard to speak my mother tongue? No. I have a fair degree of expertise in my mother tongue/s. But then, spoken sentences are often strewn with English words. There are times though when I do not get a chance to speak my mother tongue. Outside home it’s all English and at home, often my family is very busy…but then I call my mom every other day which is when it’s all about mother tongue.
    I like your idea of defining mother tongue as a language from ‘the land where our family is from’ or ‘the language(s) our ancestors spoke throughout centuries’. That because often a mother who brings us up, herself might not be speaking in her native language esp. if her ancestors left their native place many generations ago. In such instances, a woman’s children cannot always call their mother’s language as their mother tongue. Or can they?
    That said, migrant children grow up under considerable pressure to learn multiple languages, something perplexing as well as interesting and rewarding for those who can cope. My son went through exactly all that you mentioned here. If parents speak their mother tongue at home, their child develops at least some level of familiarity with the spoken part of language, but then the written part needs time and effort and as you mentioned, time is lacking. Even then one should try not to lose one’s roots altogether 🙂
    I will now read your other articles too. I was away from blogging all this time and lost track of writing/blogging


    • “spoken sentences are often strewn with English words” That sound so me when I speak a language other than English. Sounds like you know your mother tongue very well after all these years living here. Some things just never go or fade away.

      It is an interesting thought there. Language evolves with time, and depending on where we are, the ‘mother tongue’ can revolve and change around/into different dialects.

      Time is lacking, and time is everything. Hope all is going okay at your end, and take care.Thank you for stopping by. Always appreciated, Alka 🙂


  8. As my Chinese wife (who also speaks fluent French) and I (English and toneless Mandarin) get ready to begin our own family, the topic of language has come up a lot. It’ll be interesting how our family handles it.


  9. My mother tongue is English yet to be able to fluently speak another language or languages would in my opinion be incredible. The part where you wrote about being judged or even suffer all because a person spoke other then English, annoyed me oh so terribly. No one has the right to judge another especially when it comes to language. I mean really? How inconsiderate. We are who we are regardless if we speak our native language or not. There is in my mind no shame of speaking an older culture’s language. No way! That to me would be an asset for I would be able to communicate with more people, those whose culture is not mine. When I was in Italy I did not know the language and it was a terrible experience. In fact, I was looked down upon because I spoke English only. We all need to practice to honor and accept the other person. In my opinion. Wonderful post, Mabel. Thank you! Much Love, ❤


  10. Knowledge of, or fluency in, another language other than the one generally spoken in one’s country of residence is such an enviable skill that should be treasured and nurtured. Being able to speak and maybe even read another language can foster increased understanding between cultures. I wish my “mother tongue” was not lost. As you suggested, many people arrived in Australia at a time when there was more a desire and political pressure to fit in, and thus, languages other than English were spoken only amongst those who could speak them fluently at ethnic clubs. I think it is great that you have retained your knowledge, be it innate or deliberate! To learn a second language as an adult, is harder, but good brain training I think.I guess your explanation of the sixth sense, explains why I feel a great desire to be fluent ( which I will most probably never achieve), in my grandmother’s tongue!
    And I find listening so much harder than writing a second language. Great post, Mabel!


  11. I came later in my life back to the languages of my roots and surroundings. Today I speak 5 languages and can recommend learning them to anyone. Great post, thanks!


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