Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Locked out of our mother tongues



On my first day of going to primary school in Lakemba, I understood very little English and spoke even less. Although I was born in Australia, up until that point I had limited exposure to English because Vietnamese was what we spoke at home.

In Other Words, held on the International Day of Mother LanguagesMy parents seemed to feel little anxiety I might be disadvantaged, and assumed I'd just figure it out at school. Turns out they weren't wrong — I learnt English quickly and mastered it well enough that I'm now a writer and editor. However, what they probably didn't anticipate is what would happen to my Vietnamese. 

The typical pattern of immigrant language shift in Australia (and elsewhere) is that the first generation is bilingual, with dominance in the language other than English, and the second generation is bilingual with dominance in English. According to Ingrid Piller, professor of applied linguistics at Macquarie University, 'a key driver in generational language shift comes from schooling; through schooling, the state favours one particular language over all others and engineers linguistic homogeneity in a population.'

There are good reasons for the state to drive this agenda, and having English in Australia as our national language has many advantages. But it comes at a cost. One area where we can see this is in our literary culture, which brings this issue into focus.

To apply Abram de Swaan's influential theory of a global language system, the languages of the second generation in Australia are 'peripheral' in that they are 'languages of conversation and narration rather than reading and writing, of memory and remembrance rather than record'.

Our community languages are not necessarily 'peripheral' in the global sense because some of these languages have tens of millions of speakers. However, in an English dominant society like Australia they become peripheral languages that few grow up educated in, with formal schooling options limited. So when writers from the second generation try to incorporate their mother tongues into their writing in English — if they do at all — they may falter.

This was the topic of a conversation I hosted at In Other Words, held on the International Day of Mother Languages last month. One of the writers who spoke was Zarlasht Sawari, a writer and researcher born and raised in Perth. Her mother tongue is Dari, a dialect of Farsi. 'My experience has been one of being locked out of [Dari] because I am basically illiterate in the language,' said Zarlasht. 'Although I'm quite fluent I can't read or write it myself. It blocks you off from delving into the literature of that language and the knowledge that it carries of the culture.'


"In the context of English language dominance, expressing another language in public - which is what writing for publication is - can feel like a subversive act."


When Zarlasht said she felt 'locked out' out of her mother tongue, it was a powerful descriptor which resonated with the panel — among us were speakers of Arabic, Turkish, Vietnamese and Cantonese. When you come from a language background other than English, becoming a writer is daunting because of the many practical and emotional hurdles that need to be overcome. We often have to tread where few have gone before us.

We may also be haunted — and inspired — by ideas and stories that involve our mother tongues yet feel a sense of inadequacy that we can only access part of our heritage. Achieving fluency in a stepmother tongue like English usually leads to a fractured relationship with the languages of home and hearth.

This is a crucial problem to address in creating a literary culture that's a true reflection of Australian society. How are we to draw on our experiences in our mother tongues, for whatever genre of writing, and how do we situate these other languages? It's a challenge literary translators already understand well. Writers who speak languages other than English are translators of experience in addition to language itself.

It's a problem of realism but it's political as well. In the context of English language dominance, expressing another language in public — which is what writing for publication is — can feel like a subversive act.

'I don't fully translate everything ... it's important for me in my writing at least to convey that sense of alienation that is produced in many non-English speakers in Australia,' said Eda Gunaydin, a Turkish-Australian writer and researcher, who also took part in the discussion.

'I'm a true believer that there are some things that you just can't understand, that you can't fully replicate. Not just interactions but the histories behind those interactions and everything that comes along with speaking a language. That's what I try to get in my writing. Maybe it's almost good to embrace not understanding what's going on in that particular exchange.'

Once you've written a piece that includes representations of your mother tongue, it might still get stripped out in the end. An editor might take out the words you've so carefully included, particularly when the language is not a prestige one (like French). I've experienced this with Vietnamese and it was disappointing, as well as a missed opportunity. Editors could show more faith that readers will figure it out — perhaps even feel locked out — but appreciate the opportunity to develop more empathy through exposure to other tongues. 



Sheila PhamSheila Ngoc Pham is a writer, producer and radio maker. She currently teaches public health ethics at Macquarie University and is a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation. She tweets as @birdpham

Main image: Audience at the In Other Words festival (Alyx Dennison)

Topic tags: Sheila Ngoc Pham, bilingualism, multiculturalism, Vietnamese Australians



submit a comment

Existing comments

This was an interesting read for me, thanks. May I say that your first name, Sheila, presents delightful possibilities with your surname. The English language is dominant in our culture, however the richness of other languages has contributed to our vocabulary and lifestyle. Keep writing and thinking about your rich heritage.

Pam | 27 March 2018  

Thanks for this Sheila. Yep complex! How much does a different language change ideas? Kim Van Kieu, the great Vietnamese literary poem had Chinese-Buddhist-Confucian origins. Until it was translated into romanised Vietnamese language I wonder how many ordinary Vietnamese could read it. Yet to read it in English takes me away. I'm re-reading 1001 Nights in English - again. This literary marvel's origins is itself complicated. And its actors are from a wide religious and cultural landscape. So if I read this - and even the Shanameh (origins=Persian of a particular era) am I not at least tip-toeing across literary borders?

Jan Forrester | 27 March 2018  

Really appreciated this post, Sheila, and so much of it resonated with me. I am basically monolingual, and tend to be resentful of people (Chinese and not Chinese) who tell me that I am deficient, inauthentic, or have lost cultural identity because I don't speak a Chinese dialect. That said, though, there is a visceral ease I have with hearing Cantonese or Hakka that's deeply embedded (from childhood memories and family get-togethers) and also when I feel 'hailed' by writing that uses Manglish/Singlish. Language cultures are complex and fascinating - and we do them a disservice when we reduce it only to whether one speaks a particular language or not.

Tseen Khoo | 27 March 2018  

My paternal grand-mother was a Scottish teacher - well-versed in standard English - a cousin of her mother the editor of the OED - but when she left Scotland in 1919 to join in Australia her Great War Australian soldier husband - her mother penned an acrostic poem in her Autograph Book - in Borders Scots - the language of the hearth (inside which lies the "heart" of course): "Keep aye a thocht for us at hame" she wrote - in the second verse "As roond the fire ye sit, Baith Dad and I will dae the same, Love in oor hearts will aye remain, 'E ken." Standard English speakers can figure it out - but I recall being struck by the emotional appeal it represented - the non-standard English orthographic forms - when I first read it - in my 30s - half a lifetime ago! I taught EAL (English as Additional Language - both when it was either termed ESL or EFL) many years ago - studying a summer intensive school of tiêng Viet (I can't manage all the diacritics here - sorry) so that i could understand where my refugee On-Arrival students - adult and secondary - were coming from - often as not - as it transpired - actually from a Chinese-speaking background. But it gave me much to reflect upon - and then later working as an Educational Officer in a unit alongside colleagues who were charged with bringing "community languages" into orimary schools - for first language as well as others for whom it was new. Clearly that charter did not succeed. I went off to spend two decades in Japan and other linguistic/cultural priorities took my attention. I fully endorse all the points you make here - equally apolicable to the teching of Indigenous languages as part of the pathway to Bi-lingualism in remote communities - excellent programs destroyed by ignorant political interference in the NT unfortunately. You have raised significantly important questions! Thank-you.

Jim Kable | 27 March 2018  

The English language, like French and Spanish, has certainly been a tool of cultural imperialism even when that was not its intended aim. Perhaps Mandarin will follow in its train. I'd be interested to know, Sheila, the extent to which this problem that you and others are faced with in an English (or French or Spanish) -speaking society is also present in smaller language groups such as the Scandinavian countries where most people are already multilingual?

Ginger Meggs | 27 March 2018  

Thanks so much everyone for your comments and insight, just wanted to take the time to respond here as best I can.

Pam - yes the richness of other languages have contributed to Australia, but my hope would be to see much more multilingualism. Everyone benefits from knowing more than one language, even if imperfectly.

Jan - the romanisation of Vietnamese - and indeed, Turkish, which I didn't explore above - did make it easier for people to be literate and it's given those migrant groups an advantage in places like Australia too. But yes I agree reading outside of the Anglosphere is valuable, and as you put it, a way of crossing literary borders.

Tseen - that's a valuable perspective to share, so thanks, and important to consider in the context of a 'melting pot' like Australia. I suppose what I would like to see is that everyone, regardless of background, aspires to being more than monolingual though. Even if ultimately one is fluent in just one language, it's so important for successful multiculturalism if everyone understands the concept of accessing parts of other cultures through language.

Jim - thanks so much for sharing all that. I'm sure you have fascinating insight to share about Japan and I'd love to hear about your work as an Educational Officer as that period is rather critical in thinking where learning languages got away from us as a priority in Australia. Well, from the late 70s really. I particularly appreciate your own complex understanding of the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia. That's a great story about Gaelic - and in fact your comment about that has directly inspired me to write another piece that I've been thinking about for a while in regard to Aboriginal languages. I thought about saying something in this piece but decided it was a separate issue. Will have it up next month sometime!

Ginger - yes to Mandarin. It's exactly what happens now within China, which is a multicultural society. The dominant group of Chinese speakers are also becoming increasingly monolingual and losing their regional languages through urbanisation, among other factors. It's an interesting question about smaller countries and I'm very sure there's been research on it that would be interesting to look up. I have a little familiarity with that context having travelled there a fair few times and in fact my brother lives in Sweden now. I'd say that one thing is that even though people in those places are multilingual - which is great - they are ultimately less inclusive precisely because of their small populations and their identity being predicated on an idea of 'sameness' which is not particularly an Australian cultural value. We're a bit of a mongrel nation which is not how places like Scandinavia see themselves at all. To say nothing of people from backgrounds like me, I've met plenty of Australians and Americans who've also struggled fitting in with life in that part of the world, and ultimately it wasn't at all about language.

Sheila Ngoc Pham | 28 March 2018  

Yes to Pam A second language enriches the mother-tongue and the individual has more understanding and greater communication possibilities. I have always felt that the mother-tongue, especially for refugees and migrants creates better understanding among generations leading to better communication with their elders. Whilst children learn to master the English language at an exponential rate the parents are often still coping with the trauma of leaving their troubled homeland whilst trying to learn English. Communication breakdown is common between teenagers and parents, with the loss of the mother tongue/poor English skills migrant/refugee parents and children struggle...misunderstandings...ripple effects leading to community issues etc etc "The Master Key" by J H MacLehose 1958 . which I am reading...because the book belonged to my mother who read it around 1960! This quote inspired me "The master-key admitting a child to all, or almost all,palaces of knowledge is the ability to read. When he has grasped that key of his mother-tongue,he can with perseverance unlock all doors to all avenues of knowledge- more he has the passports to heavens unguessed."

Gita Sharma | 30 March 2018  

Similar Articles

Australian cricket's great betrayal

  • Gillian Bouras
  • 26 March 2018

The idea of cheating at sport, of setting such a bad example to the young, was quite simply unthinkable then, but now this cricketing episode, I fear, is a disgrace from which Australian sport may never recover. Something ethical, almost spiritual, has gone, and I am left with an acute sense of loss.


Cricket cheats blind to the common good

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 26 March 2018

As with any activity that involves many people, cricket is shaped by multiple relationships. I would not expect that cricketers be able to articulate what is entailed in these relationships. But I was surprised that some dim awareness of their importance did not make the players hesitate before launching on such a daft adventure.