I cannot remember the first language my father spoke to me in when I was child and in my growing years. This random thought popped into my mind.
And what did we speak of? Was it the importance of education and making the ‘right’ choices? The necessity for a ‘good’ career? The difference of genders? The planning of a life ahead? Was he silent to the outpourings of the girl child such that I now value listening and being heard?
Did we speak of the love of knowledge and books? The striving for excellence? The meaning of vulnerability and being impenetrable? The politics of family and love? The measures of a ‘right’ life? The ways of being a woman? Was he receptive to the interests and hobbies of a young woman such that I now honour them?
Perhaps the content of our conversations is not as important as the language and words used.
What language did we use for our exchanges? Language carries within it a culture – a system of symbols and signals to communicate and interact. It limits and expands, directs and moulds our values, beliefs, thoughts and actions, as the culture dictates. More than a tool, language is then the means by which we relate to the world, to others and to ourselves
Often Chinese people greet each other with “吃飽了嗎?” translated as “have you eaten to fullness?” instead of “how are you?”. This is an insight into the importance of food and eating to this culture. There is also no exact word for ‘happiness’, rather it is expressed in the descriptors ”开心” which translates as ‘open heart’ which is relational. What does this indicate of the culture?
Where I was born, everyone is exposed from birth to multiple languages – a national language to unify the multicultural communities, a ‘universal’ language to connect us to the English-speaking world at large, and a mother tongue to ensure our connectedness to our family and roots..
Being Chinese by ethnicity, I am required to learn Mandarin, the official Chinese language followed by Cantonese, the dialect of my ancestors, and Fujian, the dialect most used in the community. This is an unspoken expectation and a functional necessity – not a personal choice. In those days, I used these languages interchangeably, often all of them in one conversation.
Who I am is intricately bound within these languages and the cultures they inhabit. And our first language is the foundation, our connection point, to our sense of self.
I cannot remember which language was dominant when my father and I spoke during those years ago.
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