Searching for my mother tongue


Yan An is a 23 year old Singaporean fresh grad with a bachelor in German Studies. She currently works on German-English translations, and spends the rest of her time thinking about culture, identity, and what her next meal will be. Through this article, she hopes to encourage Singaporeans to think about what the various languages in their lives mean to them.


What is your mother tongue? As a daughter of Singapore, I am still searching for an adequate answer.

And, well, what is it, really?

The official answer is Mandarin. But given that I would struggle to hold a conversation on, say, politics or philosophy in the language, claiming to be a native speaker always seems disingenuous. Moreover, if a mother tongue is a person’s first language, then Mandarin certainly doesn’t fit the definition, neither for me nor for my forefathers, for whom instead Hokkien, Cantonese and Foochow are the closest linguistic ties to ancestral homes in Southern China.


1979 Speak Mandarin Campaign poster

Nevertheless, despite the engineered imposition of Mandarin as a mother tongue since the 1970s, it has become the lingua franca of sorts between different generations of Chinese Singaporeans.

Why do I automatically order my food or talk to taxi uncles in Mandarin, even though they would have understood me perfectly well in English? I reckon it’s my peace offering of sorts. As someone from a primarily English-speaking family, it is my middle ground between English and the Chinese dialects I never learned. When I speak Mandarin, I take a step into the verbal gulf that separates me from the older generations, and while I cannot reach the other shore, I hope to be met halfway.

If Mandarin isn’t my mother tongue, what about English?

It is after all the official language with which I feel most comfortable. But even that doesn’t depict the whole picture. Standard English, with its meticulously constructed sentences, was something I learnt in school and heard on television. Perhaps that’s why our local dramas, whether on Channel 5 or 8, have never felt true to me. That monolingual space where characters spout the sort of phrases you’d find in your secondary school ci yu shou ce or sound like they’re the spokesperson of the Speak Good English Movement just doesn’t exist in the Singapore that I know.




Like most Singaporeans, my linguistic identity is syncretic. It is about more than being merely bilingual. My true mother tongue lies in the interstices of all the languages, dialects and creoles I come into daily contact with. English that flows with the syntax of Chinese sentences, phrases and interjections in Malay, Hokkien and Cantonese.


All across the world, transnational movement of people is breaking down old borders between languages. Wherever tongues collide, the people who speak, write and live between state-sanctioned lines are redefining what it means to have a mother tongue.

This Chinese New Year, I listened as listened as aunts, grand uncles and cousins switched effortlessly between Hokkien, Mandarin, English and Singlish in one single conversation. Then I realised: that’s what my mother tongue is. In the confluence of various linguistic streams, I have built my home.





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