Growing up in an East-meets-West multi-cultural society where I’m a descendent of recent migrants, I have a mish-mash of language abilities. I did well in school where English Language is the medium of instruction and earned my 1st degree in English Language and Literature. My parents spoke to us in English because that was THEIR common language as well as the language they were taught in schools. I think I’ve managed to reactivate my mother’s mother tongue – Cantonese, quite well in the last few years.
Both my parents worked a lot when I was growing up. My sisters and I were brought up by our grandparents (on both sides) and a nanny (from a Thai provincial city called Khon Kaen). We spoke a variety of languages growing up and my youngest sister, Rachel, had a Thai accent till she was almost 7. According to my mother, I could code-switch very early on and I could communicate with different relatives using different languages or varieties. And I spoke with the right accent and intonation – all of which, I don’t remember now. I think it can be reactivated if I had the right stimulus.
In the last few years, my Cantonese suddenly improved leaps and bounds to even outshine cousins who’ve lived with my grandparents almost all their lives. I don’t know how and why but I am able to. My Gran now lives with us and beyond asking if she’s eaten, what she ate and if she was tired, most people don’t know what to say to her. She’s a little… uhm… confused and disoriented most times anyway. I make an attempt to ask her questions (which can be very frustrating because she sometimes drifts off to a different plane but can also be very funny) and a few times tried to copy down her recipes (but failed).
Today’s conversation went like this:
Me: Hello Grandma, I’m home!
Grandma: Oh it’s you. You’re home! Have you eaten? Go eat. (Chinese people are always asking that.)
M: Okay I will. What are you watching?
G: I’m watching TV.
M: Yes but can you see? Do you want your spectacles?
G: No no, don’t need them. No use at all. The guy-who-makes-glasses (She literally said that in Cantonese) said this is it. I’m too old. The prescription doesn’t work and it’s all they have. No point. No choice. I’m old. It’s like that. It’s ok.
M: Okay then. But can you hear what’s on TV?
G: Yes of course. The TV is quite loud.
M: Okay, do you know where this is? (This is a favourite with me and Gran. We’ll watch tv together in the afternoons and she’ll ask me where this/that place is. It could be Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Japan or whatever. I usually describe what’s going on if it’s not in Cantonese. She’ll then digress and tell me travel stories of the places she’s been to and she’s travelled really all over the world.)
G: It’s Indonesia!
Me: Indonesia? How did you get that? Do you hear them speaking Indonesian?
G: It’s Indonesia… *mumbles*
Me: It’s Hong Kong, Grandma. Do you understand them? They’re speaking Cantonese. Can you hear? They’re cooking and tasting their food.
G: It’s a cooking show. (No it’s not but I didn’t say anything.) And you know they have to taste the food. If not, they can’t sell the food. It’s like that you know. If it doesn’t taste good, nobody will buy. That’s why! They will add salt, sugar, soy sauce and MSG. They tweak the flavours. So that’s why the food outside tastes so good… Okay are you going to eat?
I swear. This is a conversation that took place barely 30 minutes ago. My mother was sitting in the living room too. I don’t think anybody else gets my Gran as chatty as I do. It made me sad to see her so old and confused but sometimes I can’t help but giggle at her replies. It’s so strange how different languages see the world differently. Guy-who-makes-spectacles, man-who-sells-vegetables, pork-man…