When we are home, the language we speak may come naturally to us. Or not. Depending on who we’re talking to at home, we may switch between speaking multiple languages and that can either be easy, or a bit of an effort.
I was born in Australia, and English is the main language of instruction in this country. It is my first language and that was what I spoke to my teachers and classmates at school. But behind closed doors back then and up until today, I speak a mixture of English, broken English and broken Cantonese; Cantonese is my Chinese-Malaysian parents’ first language.
Behind each door can be one or many languages spoken.
It can be tricky defining “first language” and “mother tongue”. In general, the terms refer to the language(s) we speak at home, and/or the languages spoken by family. As there are more diverse families around and we get opportunities to live in different places, it’s becoming more common for many of us to speak more than one language at home.
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 moved to Malaysia when I was seven. 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?