Mother Language Day 2020

Mother Language Day falls on February 21st and has been celebrated and observed by the United Nations every year since February 2000, to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

This year, we took a look at the different mother tongues and languages spoken within the Jala team. Among the eight of us, we speak a total of 12 languages fluently, with an additional 5 languages that some team members can understand. We asked the team some questions about their mother tongue!

Deric

Mother Tongue: Tagalog

Other languages spoken: English

Favourite phrase in mother tongue: Kung ano ang itinanim, s’ya ring aanihin

Translation: You reap what you sow

Can you explain your favourite phrase and why you chose it?

I like what it means. The literal translation is “that which is sown, is reaped” but it means “you reap what you sow”. I feel this phrase also really represents the Philippines. We are an agricultural nation but also a very religious nation so I feel this phrase really encapsulates my country and my mother tongue.

Tell us a bit more about your mother tongue!

I think the most distinguishing element of Tagalog is how we always insert “po”, which is used when you address someone whom you respect or someone with authority. So saying something like “how are you” would become “how are you po”. For example, when I ask my mum something, I will add “po” at the end of the question. So it’s used for someone who is a generation higher. The Tagalog word for yes is “oo”, but when you say yes to someone whom you respect, you say “opo”, to show respect.

Where or how did you learn Tagalog?

At home, initially. Our language of education is English, but we have a Filipino language class in all our local national schools. In elementary school it was once a day, but in university it really depends on what you are enrolled in. I think Tagalog is similar to English in terms of grammar, it’s not that different and not too difficult to learn.

Do you still actively speak your mother tongue on a daily basis?

Yes I do, even here in Singapore because my housemates are from the Philippines.

Are there different mother tongues within your family/extended family?

Not languages per se, but more dialects. So in some parts of the Philippines, certain words are different for the same thing. For example, knife in Tagalog is “kutsilyo” but in my grandfather’s province of Bulacan, it is called “kampit”. I’m not sure in this case whether “kutsilyo” is the Spanish word, or whether “kampit” is the original Tagalog.

‘Kung ano ang itinanim, s’ya ring aanihin’ recorded by Deric
Sharan

Mother Tongue: Telugu

Other languages spoken: Tamil, Telugu, English (these are the ones I am comfortable with), at a stretch I can understand Hindi. I did learn French in school, but I can’t hold a conversation in French!

Favourite phrase in mother tongue: Ani thelichina palli kundala padindhi

Translation: The lizard that knew everything, fell down into a pot

Can you explain your favourite phrase?

My mum says this phrase from time to time and I find it incredibly funny. It means: a person who is arrogant and claims to know everything, would be the first person to mess things up.

Tell us a bit more about your mother tongue!

I don’t speak the pure form of Telugu that people from Andhra Pradesh speak, because my family has been in Tamil Nadu for quite a few generations now, so my Telugu is a mix of Tamil and Telugu. In my personal opinion, the pure form is more melodious, but mine sounds a lot more technical when I speak it. You may need to fact check this, but I think Telugu is one of few languages in the world, where any word you say ends in a vowel. For example, cat, dog and mouse. Cat is ‘pilli’, dog is ‘kukka’ and mouse is ‘elika’.

Where or how did you learn Telugu?

I learnt it at home where everyone spoke Telugu. However I did not learn it in school, because I grew up in Tamil Nadu. I picked up Tamil in school because a lot of people spoke it. This is also why I can’t read or write in Telugu, I just speak it.

Do you still actively speak your mother tongue on a daily basis?

Yes, I speak it at home. But a lot of the words I use are in English. I don’t mix sentences, but I definitely throw in a lot of English words. For example: if I had to say “could you pass me the scissors?” I would say “Scissors pass chei?”, because I don’t know the words for pass and scissors. Chei literally means do.

Are there different mother tongues within your family/extended family?

I guess I know a few distant relatives who speak Tamil, but technically they are supposed to speak Telugu. I suppose because we grew up in Tamil Nadu, they learned Tamil.

‘Ani thelichina palli kundala padindhi’ recorded by Sharan
Amrutha

Mother Tongue: Malayalam

Other languages spoken: English and some basic Hindi (enough to understand a film, and read and write a little)

Favourite phrase in mother tongue: വേണമെങ്കിൽ ചക്ക വേരിലും കായ്ക്കും (Venamengil chakka verilum kayikkum)

Translation: Even the jackfruit can grow from a root

Can you explain your favourite phrase?

The phrase is quite common in Kerala and it means: if you have determination, you can do anything. Jackfruits don’t usually grow from roots, so the idea is that anything can be done if you are determined enough.

Tell us a bit more about your mother tongue!

I have heard that Malayalam is a very difficult language to learn, especially the script. There are 52 letters. There are some letters that are difficult for people to pronounce. When friends of mine try to learn certain words, they find there are certain letters that do not exist in other Indian languages. They find it hard to read even place names. The pronunciation and spelling is very difficult.

Also, people say that Malayalam speakers talk very fast. When I speak Malayalam, I do speak very fast.

Where or how did you learn Malayalam?

I learnt at home from my parents, then in school. In Kerala, it is compulsory to learn Malayalam up until the 10th grade. It is also the only language spoken in Kerala. Malayalam is quite similar to Tamil. We can understand Tamil, but Tamil speakers find it very difficult to understand us!

Do you still actively speak your mother tongue on a daily basis?

Yes I do, with family and friends, even in Singapore.

Are there different mother tongues within your family/extended family?

Not really. There are only different slangs in different parts of Kerala. Pronunciation may differ between the districts, but officially there is only one language. For example the word he or them is ‘avan’ in central Kerala, but in the northern parts it becomes ‘oan’. In the north, there is a larger Muslim community, so the slang is slightly different, perhaps because of the Arab influence. ‘Aval ‘(she) becomes ‘oal’.

‘വേണമെങ്കിൽ ചക്ക വേരിലും കായ്ക്കും’ recorded by Amrutha

Salman

Mother Tongue: Urdu

Other languages spoken: English

Favourite phrase in mother tongue: سمجھدار کے لئے اشارہ کافی ہے

Translation: A gesture is more than enough to the wise.

Can you explain your favourite phrase?

This phrase is very commonly used in Pakistan. I chose it because I feel that it really represents my culture and my country.

Tell us a bit more about your mother tongue!

I think Urdu is a very tough and complex language to learn, because there are a lot of complex words that even I do not understand. It is a very vast language that is spoken in quite a lot of regions such as Bangladesh and India. What I think is unique about Urdu is that we have two different sounds for when you are addressing a man or a woman. For example, the question “Can I call you?” — when speaking to a man, the “I” in this sentence changes versus when asking the same question to a woman.

Where or how did you learn Urdu?

Urdu is our national language. I was raised speaking Urdu from childhood at home, and we are taught Urdu in our schools. In Urdu, the script is similar to Arabic, and we read it from right to left.

Do you still actively speak your mother tongue on a daily basis?

Yeah I do. I live in Pakistan so I speak it actively. I have a few cousins living abroad in Canada, the US and UK and their Urdu is very mixed, they mix in English words because their Urdu is not as fluent.

Are there different mother tongues within your family/extended family?

Yes there are. We have different languages like Sindhi, Punjabi and Pashto. There are many different dialects within the regions. But for my family, we only speak Urdu.

سمجھدار کے لئے اشارہ کافی ہے recorded by Salman
Jani

Mother Tongue: Mandarin

Other languages spoken: English, Japanese, Taiwanese and a little bit of Korean

Favourite phrase in mother tongue: 爱屋及乌 (Ai wū jí wū)

Translation: Love the house and its crow.

Can you explain your favourite phrase?

This phrase means that love encompasses everything connected with somebody, like the English saying: “Love me, love my dog.” Wu is a homonym and a pun, which is something Chinese phrases often have. My mum used it in a very personal and meaningful context one day and it stuck with me.

Tell us a bit more about your mother tongue!

I think what makes Mandarin unique is that it’s tonal and words are characters (similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs). The tones are used to differentiate the words, but the characters themselves also have different meanings. There are thousands and thousands of characters to remember, that even a fluent native speaker may come across ones they don’t recognise. These characters can also be pronounced differently in different parts of China, depending on the dialect and region.

What’s interesting is that some Chinese characters are pictograms, where the character resembles its meaning.

Where or how did you learn Mandarin?

I learnt Chinese from my family, speaking it at home. I’ve never had any formal training in Chinese but I learnt how to read and write from my grandfather in Taiwan. He used to write Chinese characters in calligraphy onto little square cards, and make me memorise them. I used to practice reading and writing the characters every day when I was little.

Do you still actively speak your mother tongue on a daily basis?

Yes, I do. I speak it with my family and sometimes with local Singaporeans.

Are there different mother tongues within your family/extended family?

Yes, there are different ones. My mum speaks Taiwanese which is like Hokkien, but it doesn’t sound the same as the one you hear in Singapore. More distantly, my grandfather from my mum’s side, is from Anhui in China. They have a dialect in Anhui, and he speaks that as well as Mandarin. It sounds completely different, and I don’t understand a word. I can understand a bit of Hokkien though (mostly the Taiwanese one).

‘爱屋及乌’ recorded by Jani
Dewi

Mother Tongue: English

Other languages spoken: Bahasa Indonesia, German

Favourite phrase: Tak ada gading yang tak retak.

Translation: There is no ivory that is not cracked.

Can you explain your favourite phrase?

The phrase is an Indonesian proverb, and it means that nothing is perfect, even ivory has its imperfections.

Some of my favourite phrases in the other languages that I speak are:

  • English — Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
  • German — Sauer macht lustig! (“Sour makes it funny!”)

I have included phrases for all three languages because I’m linguistically confused! While English is my mother tongue and the language spoken at home and by half of my family, a good portion of my schooling life was in German whilst another half was in Indonesian. Coming from a mixed marriage, I was exposed to multiple languages and cultures.

Do you still actively speak your mother tongue on a daily basis?

I still speak all three languages very regularly.

Are there different mother tongues within your family/extended family?

Some distant relatives on my father’s side speak Minangkabau but within my immediate family no one really spoke it.

‘Tak ada gading yang tak retak’ recorded by Dewi
Chrystal

Mother Tongue: Mandarin

Other languages spoken: English, Japanese, Korean, German

Favourite phrase in mother tongue: 井底之蛙 (Jǐng dǐ zhī wā).

Translation: A frog in a well.

Photo by Matthew Kosloski on Unsplash

Can you explain your favourite phrase and why you chose it?

This was one of the first few phrases I learnt at primary school, and has stuck with me since then. It is based on a folktale about a frog who lived in a well and his encounter with a turtle. Being the only resident of the well, he felt powerful and would boast about it, but after speaking with a turtle who chanced upon his well, he learns that there is a world beyond his little well. The moral of this story is that we should not disregard what exists beyond what we know, and that we should never stop learning and expanding our outlook of the world.

Tell us a bit more about your mother tongue!

I think most people get intimidated by Mandarin when they learn about the tonal variants of a single word. It is difficult, and the Chinese characters don’t make language learning any easier either, but it is oddly a very simple language in its own way. Unlike European languages, Mandarin has no verb conjugations, and a single verb can be used for the present, past and future. It was not something I noticed until I found myself struggling to learn German a few years ago, and now I have a deep appreciation for the language.

Where or how did you learn your mother tongue?

I learnt it at home first with my mother and grandmother and then at school.

Do you still actively speak your mother tongue on a daily basis?

Yes I do, especially with my mother and friends that can also speak Mandarin.

Are there different mother tongues within your family/extended family?

Definitely! My mother is from Taiwan so she speaks Hokkien, and my father is from Malaysia so he speaks Cantonese, along with Malay. Unfortunately, I didn’t grow up speaking the languages, so I only have a basic understanding of Cantonese and Malay.

‘井底之蛙’ recorded by Chrystal
Liani

Mother Tongue: English

Other languages spoken: Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, basic Brazilian Portuguese, and Taglish!

Favourite phrase in a mother tongue (Malay): Sedikit-sedikit, lama-lama menjadi bukit.

Translation: Every small effort will eventually culminate into something greater in the future.

Photo by Rio Bahtiar on Unsplash

Can you explain your favourite phrase and why you chose it?

This Malay phrase literally translates to “little by little, it will eventually become a hill”. What this means is that with time, consistency and patience, one’s efforts will reap rewards and add up into something big — a timely reminder at an age when information today comes instantly and our attention-span has shortened!

I chose a Malay phrase — despite English being my “mother tongue” — because the Malay language reminds me of my connections to Southeast Asia. Malay was the lingua franca of the trading region in the 14th century, and is still very much related to other languages such as Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia whilst also having a rich body of literature.

This phrase also reveals some distinguishing features of the Malay language, such as doubling a word to emphasise or to make it plural — “sedikit-sedikit” meaning “little by little”, while “lama-lama” literally sounds like “long-long” or “later-later”, but is used as “eventually” or “later on”.

Tell us a bit more about your mother tongue!

It amuses me when foreigners are shocked that many Malaysians speak “such good English”, sometimes even better than our English counterparts! English is a remnant and reminder of Malaysia’s colonial past, a language we have made our own — even as we speak other languages here.

The fun in conversational Malaysian English (or Manglish) is when we mix it with our “lah”s and include expressions of other languages like “Alamak!” (“Oh no!”) within our sentences.

Where or how did you learn your mother tongue?

My parents both have different mother tongue languages (Bidayuh and Punjabi) so we communicated in English to each other at home. I only learnt Malay in a crash course to prepare for primary school education! The effect was not knowing Bidayuh or Punjabi — which I plan to learn next! If I could have it any other way, I’d have loved to grow up speaking their languages.

Do you still actively speak your mother tongue on a daily basis?

I speak English and Malay everyday.

When I was based in Indonesia for a year though, I found myself thinking in a mix of Bahasa Indonesia, English and Malay! My Malay became heavily influenced by Indonesian phrases which tended to sound more “halus” (polite) than Malay. It was so strong that my Malaysian friends thought I was just becoming more guarded with my words!

Are there different mother tongues within your family/extended family?

Yes! There are languages like Punjabi, Bidayuh, Iban — even Mandarin. Every visit to Sarawak is an opportunity to learn more Bidayuh as nobody will translate, unless requested!

‘Sedikit-sedikit, lama-lama menjadi bukit’ recorded by Liani

As you can see, languages matter a lot here at Jala; both within the team as well as on our platform. Most of our Jala translators are multi-lingual individuals who use their language skills and knowledge to translate for good.

Thank you for reading, and a happy Mother Language Day from Jala!

Note: This article has been revised and updated for 2020. It was first published to celebrate International Mother Language Day in 2019.

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