Rediscovering My Mother Tongue

By Natalie Wong

I spend a lot of time with my grandmother, or rather, my mah mah as I like to call her in Cantonese. There’s an unspoken love between me and grandmother —very unspoken, because I literally have trouble communicating with her. In Hong Kong, where I grew up, the two main languages widely spoken are Cantonese and English. My grandmother doesn’t speak English and my spoken Cantonese is mediocre at best. While our relationship endures a generational and cultural gap, a wider gap is left by our inability to truly communicate, leaving me wondering about my own identity and what I’m missing out on. 

Photo from Wikipedia

Language attrition is the process of losing a first or once spoken language. I found myself experiencing varying degrees of language attrition while attending an English-only international school, despite living in Hong Kong. The importance of learning English has always been emphasized to me and threatened my Cantonese ability in my childhood. I see some of my Asian-American friends understandably losing a lot of their ability to speak and write in their mother tongues after being born and raised in predominantly English-speaking America. My case is strangely not as excusable, as Hong Kong speaks Cantonese and I’ve chosen to exist in an English-speaking bubble inside it. While I understand the majority of conversational Cantonese when it’s spoken to me, it is a shame that I have somehow lost a lot of my language speaking skills. There’s a Cantonese saying in international student communities—“sik tang, ng sik gong”, which translates to “can listen, but can’t speak”, and it is the clockwork response non-natives, or in my case, kids who are bad at Cantonese, say to fluent speakers. I find myself in a position where I am unable to freely express myself in my mother tongue despite identifying with my Hong Kong culture. 

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My experiences with confidence and a lack of motivation to speak are also key factors for my subpar Cantonese ability and consequently, a degradation of identity. My emotional investment in Cantonese is attached to my family, especially my grandmother, and while I have a close relationship with my her, I am oblivious to her inner and emotional life. I still hold a superficial perspective of her as I did in childhood. Cross-cultural psychologists have shown that bilingual people tend to connect certain memories and emotions to one of their languages and hold that bilinguals have acquired personalities with two cultural systems and can shift personalities accordingly. My personality with my grandmother is simplistic and one dimensional, while in reality, I have a whole personality she is unaware about that I live in in English. I believe language is a gateway to understanding others’ identities, and I recognize my lack of effort to learn more about my grandmother. 

On special occasions, I would be lucky enough to stay at my mah mah’s house overnight. One night, I made myself comfortable in my Aunt’s childhood bedroom. My grandmother was in the kitchen, kind enough to cook a late-night snack for me because she figured I would be hungry. I was bored, so I began snooping around my Aunt’s bedroom drawers. I stumbled upon an exercise notebook—the type my grandmother would always make me fill out for “extra homework” in the secondgrade— but it was years since I last saw one. It didn’t have a name on it. I opened the notebook and saw scribbly, shaky handwriting on its pages, repetitions upon repetitions of sentences like “I like to go to the beach” or “My favorite fruit is orange” or “I have a sister and brother”. I had young cousins, but they were at least in the fourth grade—the notebook couldn’t have belonged to them. I held up an old copy of an “English for Kids” textbook underneath the exercise book, and my grandmother standing in the doorway with a plate of fried dumplings for me. She came in, announcing the food she made, then saw the textbook I had in front of me. She hurriedly put the books back into the drawer, embarrassed. 

“I wanted to practice my English,” she said. And that was all.

My grandmother didn’t need to try, but she did. She reached out and wanted to find out more about the person I’ve kept hidden from her. At the very least, going forward I can try to do the same. 

Featured Image by Simon Zhu on Unsplash

Born and raised under the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, Natalie Wong is a senior at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts majoring in Writing for Screen and Television with a minor in Business Law. An international student herself, she understands the difficulties of picking up a second language and aims to improve her Mandarin and Cantonese speaking abilities. She is active on campus and was the showrunner of Platforum, a daily talk show focusing on entertainment and social issues airing on USC’s television station Trojan Vision, and is eager to discuss American and Asian pop culture.