Saturday, March 17, 2007

Mother's Tongue

Sometimes the events in my life read like a novel, with all sorts of strange, seemingly random occurrences foreshadowing subsequent, equally-random events in a storyline that details the life of a normal, ordinary Chinese-Canadian woman.

And that is what the past few minutes have sort of felt like, for me. You see, I just finished having a conversation with my mother. During our chat, which was conducted mostly in Cantonese but with some English sentences and "Chinglish" phrases interspersed into the dialogue, we discussed my improving health and other miscellaneous topics about our respective lives. At one point, however, my mother asked me (in Chinese) to try to explain a phrase to her. She wanted to know what "put your words in your mouth" meant. Not ever having even heard such a phrase before in all my years of study and experience, I had no idea what she was talking about, and thus I had to ask her to repeat herself. When this provided precious little clarity to the question, I then attempted to offer up alternative idioms in its place, thinking that perhaps she had remembered her phrase in error. No, no, she insisted, this was the phrase she had heard. Finally, I inquired about the source of this phrase. It was Tim, a friend of theirs whose first language is Cantonese and whose mastery of English is mediocre at best. Ah, I realized. It was probably a Chinglish error at work. "This isn't a real English phrase, Mom," I replied to her confidently. "Don't use it and don't worry about it."

Anyway, this got me thinking a little bit about my parents' understanding of language (and specifically, of English), and my own ability to flip between "proper English" (which I used at some points during my conversation with my mom) and this dialectal "Chinglish" that is universally-spoken by most ESL, Cantonese native speakers. There seems to be a huge discrepancy between the two as far as syntax and semantics are concerned; the iconic Cantonese language is so rich with details embodied in simple syllables that the need for certain prepositions and articles and suffixes is simply not there, and to try to impose these conventions and mechanics onto their English understanding is immensely challenging, if not arguably impossible.

It also made me appreciate the fact that my parents and I are able to understand each other even though we seem to operate with very different language abilities: my simple, conversational Cantonese and my complex, multi-syllabic English sentences are both effective mediums to convey my ideas to my mom and dad, and their strange dialectal Chinglish and their perfectly polite, complex Cantonese are also clearly understood by all of their children, in spite of the drastic differences in all of these tongues.

So, with all of these ideas in mind following my conversation with my mother, I logged onto my e-mail, only to discover a link to this: Amy Tan's essay on Mother Tongue, in which she explores her own journey with her mother and the various forms of English that they have shared over the years. I devoured the article, reading it with great fascination and a reflective spirit. At the end of it, I found myself thinking that the chat with my mother, the discussion on English idioms, and the subsequent discovery of the essay were all a little too coincidental, not unlike how authors seemingly link unrelated events into a coherent, foreshadowed whole in order to tell a great tale.


PS - Hubbs helped me to figure out that my mom was trying to ask about "put words in my mouth" rather than "put your words in your mouth." I was thrown by the possessive. Anyway, we called her back and explained what it meant to put words in one's mouth. She was pleased with our explanation. =)


Wobbly*Bits said...

Yikes, Big Brother was on your phone call! Just kidding, but that's creepy.

This reminds me of listening to my college roommate talk to her parents on the phone. It would be all in Vietnamese then she'd throw in "quad" "busstop" "skipping class" and other phrases she didn't know in Vietnamese.

I was confused by one thing. You've never heard the phrase "put words in your mouth" in English or Chinese?

Natalie said...

After six years of Spanish idiomatic expressions were always the hardest. I thought immediately of putting words in someones mouth too, glad you got it cleared up.