Mother Tongues

learning english
By Stellapark025 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
English is my mother tongue. That’s as much an accident of birth as the result of my parents’ concerted efforts to turn my brothers and me into real Americans. It worked. Neither of my brothers speak any language other than English. And if I hadn’t fallen in love with a Dutchman, I would have suffered the same fate.

I’m not knocking the English language. It’s a wonderfully muscular tongue that can lash as easily as it can soothe. You can get your point across with a minimum amount of effort. In 144 characters, if need be.  Or you can engage your fantasy in an endless flight.

English is not the oldest language. Mandarin and Spanish still lead the pack in terms of the number of native speakers. But among non-native speakers, English is the lingua franca, the gateway to success, the one language to rule them all.

a dissenting voice

Jacob Mikanowski was born and raised in the United States. Yet his mother tongue is Polish. His parents were visiting the US when, in 1980, martial law was declared in Poland and the way home blocked. For Mikanowski

family intimacies long to be expressed in Polish. So does anything concerning the seasons, forest products and catastrophic sorrows. Poetry naturally sounds better in Polish.

In Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet, Mikanowksi deplores the rise of the English language to the exclusion of all others. Not for the obvious complaints about cultural hegemony but rather because language is intimately tied to who we are.

For example, Kayardild is a language used in northern Australia. In order to explain where object A stands in relation to object B

an English speaker would orient things according to their own perception – my left, my right, my front, my back – [but] a speaker of Kayardild thinks in terms of north, south, east and west. As a consequence, speakers of Kayardild (and those of several other languages that share this feature) possess “absolute reckoning”, or a kind of “perfect pitch” for direction.

In Mandarin, it’s common to use the first person plural (we) rather than the I that dominates English. When the Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo moved from Beijing to London, she struggled with this focus on the individual.

After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? … But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular – urgently.

english for the occasion

For bilingual and multilingual speakers, each language is an expression of a different self. The reticent Finns use English to tell their children I love you. The buttoned-down Japanese like to curse in it. All the same, Mikanowski asks:

Is English oppressive? When its pervasive influence silences other languages, or discourages parents from passing on their native languages to their children, I think it can be. When you do know another language, it’s merely constricting, like wearing trousers that are too tight. That’s because while English is good for a great many things, it is not good for everything.

Guardian correspondents from around the world selected the 10 best words in the world (that don’t translate into English).  Andrew Roth chose the Russian word тоска (toska). The term embraces yearning, ennui and all the shades of grey in between.

Russian birches
Birches at Lobnya, Moscow Oblast, Russia. By
Lyseria [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Visually to me, toska conjures up an endless field of birch on the edge of St Petersburg, in the dead of winter when the clouds never part, and it’s only light for five hours a day anyway.

Madeleine Thien chose tiáo (条) as her Mandarin contribution. While languages like Dutch and Spanish classify words by gender, Mandarin does so by shape.

Tiáo is one of at least 140 classifiers and measure words in the Chinese language. It’s a measure word for long-narrow-shape things. For example, bed sheets, fish, ships, bars of soap, cartons of cigarettes, avenues, trousers, dragons, rivers.

You can’t translate a measure word into English because it has no grammatical counterpart. You simply delete it from the sentence.

village elders

Languages die just like people do. Death may come suddenly: a war or a disease that devastates a community. Most often, it’s gradual. The icecap melts so slowly, you don’t realize your feet are wet.

Siberian flag
Flag of Ust Orda Buryat. By User:Conscious [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Natasha Papaeva writes:

I forgot my mother tongue. And I am not the only one. Many people in my native Buryatia (Siberia) are losing their language. The Buryat language is one of nearly 2600 languages likely to disappear. Of all 6000 languages in the world, 43% are endangered and I am going through this process myself. In my performance, I am singing two sentences from a Buryat traditional song. The only two sentences I remember. 

I saw that performance. Papaeva stood on the boardwalk of the River IJ and sang her two sentences. Sometimes in a low croon, the way a grandmother might rock a child to sleep. At other times, electrically, she screamed the words and they echoed up and down that waterfront.

Amadou Hampâté Bâ, a Malian historian and novelist, once said:

in Africa, when an elder dies, a library burns.