It’s all Chinese to me

Chris Reads
5 min readMay 21, 2021

My mother tongue is Chinese. Or at least I think it is right now. As someone who primarily identifies with the second generation immigrant cohort, my Chinese ability and use was eclipsed by English from a young age, the gap only widening over time. It feels like cheating to put select “native speaker” as my Chinese level when applying for a job, knowing that it’s not a good characterization of my competence, but I do so anyways.

For census purposes, the Canadian Government defines mother tongue as “the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the person at the time,” but includes the addendum: “For a person who learned two languages at the same time in early childhood, the mother tongue is the language this person spoke most often at home before starting school. The person has two mother tongues only if the two languages were used equally often and are still understood by the person.”

Canada has a unique perspective on this issue as not only a land of multicultural immigrants, but also a land of two official languages. This differentiates it from other countries who may have only one of the characteristics. For example, the Singaporean government, considers “mother tongue” to be more based off of ethnicity than childhood usage, a product of Singapore’s own complex demography and immigration policy: incredibly multicultural to start and based on attracting foreign workers, not immigrants, respectively.

Given the government’s authority on the matter, I’m glad that I tentatively belong into the group of two mother tongues. I say tentatively, because my English quickly became much more proficient than my Chinese; I was a precocious reader, and I have clear memories of reading a Pokémon chapter book when I was five. I currently read Chinese at about that level, and it’s taken many years of learning.

In fairness, Chinese is one of the more challenging languages to learn to read, particularly for the illiterate, as redundant as that sounds. For most languages knowing the alphabet allows a native speaker to quite easily understand a text: certain sequences of symbols phonetically correspond directly to certain words. In Chinese, the characters often have phonetic hints, but are much more clues than explicit instructions for pronunciation, so I remained functionally illiterate for a long time, despite my parents’ best effort to teach me the language.

They tried their best to speak Chinese at home, but English would seep in here and there, permeating the conversation, and then their vocabulary too. The language schools available were full of ill-qualified instructors teaching as a part-time job on Saturday mornings, when I would be least interested in attending more school. My mother tried earnestly for a few summers, but the story was always the same: any progress made during one day would be mostly lost by the next week, and completely lost by the next month.

In the end, it only took sincere interest on my part to learn Chinese. A few months of ten minutes of daily practice memorizing vocabulary lists, and then a summer in China. Once the ball started rolling, it picked up speed. I started listening to Chinese songs while reading the lyrics, and texting my parents in Chinese.

To other second generation Chinese immigrants reading this: you might find this hard to believe, but it was straightforward to map my existing Chinese vocabulary onto these words that I was learning. Trust me, if you want to, you can do it. Download a list of the hundred most used characters, and memorize them. Then repeat with another hundred of the most frequently used characters, increasing the character count until you can sustain text conversations with your parents. Texting is even easier than reading because inputting the character is done phonetically, and picking the right word from a list is often easier than identifying one without context. From there on, it snowballs.

Unfortunately, I’ve hit a big plateau. As I try to read progressively more challenging material, I’ve found that even after looking up the pronunciation of the word, I still have no idea what it means. Prior to this, if I could read the word out loud, I knew what the word meant and how it was used. Increasingly however, I’ve been finding that I simply do not know the word. In certain instances, I’ll even be able to recognize the characters without help, but have no idea what they mean together.

This isn’t a new obstacle as much as it is an exhaustion of my prior knowledge. I’ve run out of existing Chinese words to map these knew characters onto; everything was new from here onward. I’ve reached this point much sooner than I expected to: not because I’m a fast learner, but because I greatly overestimated the amount of Chinese I already knew. I couldn’t discuss arts, politics, or business. Alternatively put, I could only talk about tangible things, not abstract ideas, because I had never had these sorts of discussions with my parents growing up.

My next steps then, are to increase my existing word bank. I haven’t found the best way to do this yet, but have been starting off with watching talk shows with conversations about abstract ideas, and try to augment my vocabulary from there. This however, presents more problems.

My already complex relationship to my mother tongue is further strained because it isn’t Standard Chinese, or Mandarin. I grew up speaking the ‘dialect’ of my parents, Shanghainese. I put the quotations around the word ‘dialect’, because Mandarin is referred to as the only official language of China, and all other languages are considered dialects, despite having little mutual intelligibility with one another. There is likely more overlap between Polish and Slovak or Spanish and Portuguese than there are between Mandarin and Shanghainese, political factors largely delineating the separation between language and dialect.

I don’t question China’s stance on this, as it is undoubtedly a simpler way to run a country; few differences serving to strengthen nationalism. It does make me a bit sad to think that my real mother tongue will disappear in a few generations; my twelve-year-old cousin in China barely speaks it. As I work on improving my Chinese, I can feel Shanghainese slipping away from me. All the Chinese that I consume outside of my family is in Mandarin, and so all the new words I have to discuss feelings, ideas, and thoughts are going to be in Mandarin. Sometimes, I feel that by trying to learn more Chinese, I’m displacing Shanghainese with Mandarin.

My mother tongue is Chinese. Or at least I think it is right now, after I’ve improved my Chinese ability to one of basic fluency. But will it stay that way, will I be able to keep my knowledge of the language? Does it make sense to tell people my mother tongue is Chinese when my English is so much better? Will Chinese still be my mother tongue if I slowly lose my ability to speak Shanghainese, and only speak Mandarin, which I did not speak in childhood?

We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. My mother tongue is Chinese.