Mother Tongue Twisted

Reading A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo was a lesson in emphasis and empathy. Being the child of immigrant parents I thought I knew what it meant to navigate the complexities of a new language – to suppress your mother tongue, and replace it with a foster one.

But the thing is I never had to experience that; I never had to know the struggle of translating something in my head before verbalising it, and, once I finally get it out, to find out that I was wrong. I never had to know the humiliation of having all authority stripped from me, of having to re-earn my respect word by word simply because others failed to realize that while the pronunciation of “respect” differed, its definition was the same all over the globe.

Language has become power. This is nothing new, of course. English was very much a weapon of colonialism during Imperialism. Much of the native tongue of the colonized people was suppressed, and those who spoke it were ostracized to the point that anything associated with it was seen as shameful.

Even now, within the diaspora community here, it is often a point of pride if you can throw in English words here and there in your conversation to appear more “learned” and intelligent. Those who speak in their first languages are seen as being embarrassing, as backwater bumpkins who are unable to adapt. The necessity of learning English to survive has transformed into a desire to hide our mother tongues. The bullying kids face at school, and the odd looks aimed by adults in public places are all corrosive.

Knowledge should be shared and cultivated, and language, as a branch of knowledge should definitely be about that. As a form of communication it is a give and take, an exchange. But with English’s pervasive power, instead of being a commonly used currency, it is sometimes treated as the only currency.

Yesterday, an article in the paper reported how an English backpacker had been set upon by a group of angry young men simply because the Englishman had deigned to communicate to a French friend in French. “Speak English”, he was told. The arrogance of these men is mind-boggling – their temerity has no bounds. Their audacious actions speak loudly for their complete belief in the superiority of their language. Their confidence in being able to exert their power and authorize the supposed superiority of their language is not only repulsive, but harmful. New Zealand is frequently lauded for its friendliness, and renowned for its multi-cultural cities. And yet, even this idyll is infested with this racist mode of thinking.

The sound of a foreign language is heard as a threat, registered as an act of defiance. To dare to brave this thorny hatred requires a strength and endurance I can’t imagine. To speak your language in a place immersed in thoughts of its own superiority, to struggle with that country’s language, these are daily acts of bravery happening all over the world. The courage of all these immigrants (not ex-pats, for ex-pats by their very term are accorded a privilege that immigrants are not) who try to make a life for themselves despite being shunned as outsiders is truly admirable.

There’s a quote that goes along the lines of “If someone struggles with the English language, it means they’re already fluent in another language”, and I’ve seen it around a lot lately. It seems that such close-minded individuals as those boys can’t pause to consider the wider world around them.

They don’t want to think about how far-reaching the human experience is, nor do they have the capacity to realize that it’s through communication, through exchange of knowledge that we can build on that experience. They don’t want to admit that there are channels of information and knowledge that they haven’t tapped into; they would rather that all the world only view itself through one lens.


2 thoughts on “Mother Tongue Twisted

  1. I feel this a lot.

    In my country English is pretty much taught in school from day one, and most people (particularly in urban areas) are fluent or at least conversant in english. And even then there’s this value attached to being good in English, this implication that fluent English speakers are classier, smarter, make for better employees, etc. And completely bypassing the fact that the majority of Malaysians are multi-lingual (at the VERY least all of us speak at least two languages) but it’s just not as good, not as important, as being able to speak English. It’s just this ocean of leftover linguistic imperialism.

    ” Those who speak in their first languages are seen as being embarrassing, as backwater bumpkins who are unable to adapt. ”

    This applies here too, unfortunately, but also the other way round. Most ethnic groups have certain terms they use to refer to people who can’t speak their particular mother tongue (or if they are more fluent in English than their mother tongue). That you’re stuck up, you think you’re too good for your people or your culture, you’ve forgotten your roots, you’re trying to be white-western or suck up to them, etc. The most prominent example I can think of is that Chinese-Malaysians have the word “banana” (as in “yellow outside but white inside”) or OCBC (roughly translate to “chinese but not really chinese) for Chinese people who don’t or can’t speak chinese languages.

    So it’s this weird, confusing juggling act of trying to be good at English because that’s what we feel is more valued in a globalized world, and that’s what will make foreigners and employers and educators take us seriously, and then being put on guilt-trips for not being experts in our own respective languages/cultures. When I feel like the reason a lot of those things get pushed aside is because of the focus on English in the first place (especially among middle-class urbanites). The lower value placed on anything “Asian”, that tone of disdain for anything “local” or “made in Malaysia” because of course it’s going to be inferior to anything coming out of the English-speaking “West”. And it’s not even like there are that many white people here to be pushing us around, this is us placing judgement and expectations on our own society, and it’s so sad and damaging.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, omgosh, it’s like we can’t get anything right. If you DON’T speak English, then you’re seen as an idiot, but if you DO speak it, then you’re not respecting your mother tongue. I think what we seem to bypass is that we need to respect each other first and foremost.

      Although, to be honest, there are those who think that because they speak English they are superior to those who don’t. Plus, there’s almost this weird happiness they seem to get in saying, “Oh, I can speak English, but not [whatever’s their mother tongue].”

      I don’t know man, it’s screwed up. Like you said, it’s the left over linguistic imperialism and it’s still at work, and people don’t realize that, and just rag on each other instead.


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