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.
Talking about language is confusing. Mother tongue, first language, native language and so on, we all define these phrases differently. And each of these definitions aren’t wrong at all since each phrase holds different meanings for each of us.
The other weekend I thought about this as I walked through the shopping centre near my place. Walking briskly, I passed by the stall selling organic beauty products, passed right in front of a middle-aged-looking Caucasian female stall attendant.
“Ni hao!” she exclaimed. I slowed my walking speed. What? She’s assuming I understand Chinese. Assuming that Mandarin is my mother tongue, which isn’t. It’s Cantonese. No, wait. My family speak Chinese too…so it’s also my mother tongue…