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Illustration by Grace Shieh

On Mother Tongues: A Language I Cannot Claim

What is a mother tongue? The language my mother speaks? The language I grew up speaking? I’m always in the search of one, that I can never own, an intimacy that I can never claim, a feeling that I’ll never truly possess.

Nov 21, 2020

“What’s your mother tongue?” This question is an old acquaintance of mine. People expect a one word answer. At most, maybe two. But it’s not that simple. On the rare days when honesty and sincerity rule, I respond: “I don’t know. I don’t think I have one.”
What is a mother tongue? The language my mother speaks? The language I grew up speaking? I have always alternated between Chinese and English depending on where I am. I do math in Chinese, but I count in English. I talk to my parents in Chinese, but I talk to myself about my most intimate thoughts in English. I write in both.
The first time I was exposed to the idea of a mother tongue was in second grade in Taiwan, the year when kids begin to learn Taiwanese as a part of the national curriculum. It was also the year when we officially started to participate in National Mother Tongue Tuesdays, in which students are encouraged to speak in their mother tongue at school. Most of my friends would talk mainly in Taiwanese and some in Hakka, the aboriginal languages or south-eastern languages. It was supposed to be a day that highlights one’s individual identity and pride to familial roots. But every Tuesday, I was miserable. I didn’t know which language to speak. So I would stick to Chinese, but even that, I spoke with uncertainty.
In fifth grade, when we moved back to the United States, the same bewilderment once again befell on me as I was asked to introduce myself, for the hundredth time, as the new kid. I said Grace. But my teacher corrected me. “No, no, in your mother tongue,” she said. So I told them my Chinese name, a name that not even my parents or friends call me by.
As a kid, a game I liked to play was swapping English alphabets with the Zhuyin alphabet, a phonetic system only used in Taiwan, and interchanging alphabets that have the same pronunciation. T and ㄊ sounds the same, s and ㄙ and so on. It took me a while to realize that they’re two different languages, each with their own history, grammar and syntax.
So, you have two mother tongues, right? No, I don’t. It’s not that simple.
In middle school in Taiwan, I grew to use Chinese as my primary language for all aspects of life, including school and journaling, and I almost felt like I owned Chinese. But I was constantly reminded by strangers and classmates alike that I had a foreigner’s accent when I spoke, that I sounded American. Regardless of how close I was to finally knowing what it is like to own a language, I never felt it. It was as if I could sense the intimacy between words, the kind of freedom and liberty one has when utilizing their mother tongue, yet still could not taste it.
In high school back in the U.S., I stopped using Chinese altogether. I relearned my American accent, which was almost lost in middle school, and actively tried to toss away all remaining influences of Chinese. I stopped reading and writing in Chinese. If I could never own it, I might as well pretend like it was never there to begin with, so perhaps I could claim English.
But of course that did not happen.
All that did was make me actively neglect a part of who I am, a part of who my family is, a part of the places I come from. And in those crucial years in shaping one’s language, I threw away what was most dear to me without hesitation. I remained bilingual.
You may say, What is there to complain about? You are proficient in two languages, something many try hard for years to obtain. In reality, there is a lot to lament. I’m ashamed to have thrown away my identity; I regretted those years when I stopped writing in Chinese. You can always learn a new language, but you can never be reborn into a mother tongue.
Language is an intimate thing beyond its daily communication purposes. There’s a kind of beauty in the language you use with your family, a kind of closeness and tenderness in the languages that you grew up feeling most attached to. It’s a personal bridge to who you are, how you think, what you write and articulate, where you come from and an important part of your identity. And a mother tongue is of the most private, personal kind; one that cannot be learned, but one that is shaped as you grow up.
For some, a mother tongue is something that doesn't require a second thought. But for others, it’s something we struggle with and continuously seek. Similar to how I always felt homesick no matter which city I was in due to constantly relocating when I was growing up — something I’m extremely grateful for that made me who I am today. I’m always in search of a mother tongue.
There’s also beauty, movement and charm in the process of searching, in the endless childhood and teenage days when I asked myself what my mother tongue is. But for those who have it: keep it, cherish it, don’t toss it away. Your mother tongue is a precious thing. Be proud.
Grace Shieh is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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