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?

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