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that’s why they call it your mother tongue

Vai through o park, a laneway, atras das hythro poles. Chega a casa safety. Nao tomas o tunnel a noite, okai?


My aunt speaks Portuguese with a French accent.

While my parents left Portugal for Angola and then Canada, my mother’s sister immigrated to France with her husband. Three or more decades later, she’s already forgotten so much of her mother’s tongue. The bits she does speak make her sound as though she just picked up a few lessons on a “Learn Portuguese in 5 Easy Steps!” tape. Neither of her two sons speak a word, and at some point, they all changed their last name from Ferreira to Ferry. When she greets me in the morning she sings “Bonjour, Suzanne!” Never Susana.

“They call it your mother tongue for a reason.” I remember reading that line in a book somewhere, a collection of essays and reflections by bilingual authors, writers that had been thrust (or had thrust themselves) into environments where they could no longer use their native language, or started to forget the words, or had to write in words not entirely familiar to them. They wrote about the idea of home in words.

It is called your mother tongue, they wrote, because it is the first to introduce you to the world around you. It teaches you the names of things, the colour and temperature of your emotions, the shape of your thoughts. It carves and paints your reality.

My mother’s tongue is my first one too, and it painted my world — though with some twists. Here’s my messy language timeline:

Portuguese, as an infant, started learning at home. English, five, started learning in kindergarten and from cartoons. French, six or seven, started learning in the first grade I think. Spanish and Arabic came much later. Somewhere in between, my parents picked up some English and Italian.

By the time I turned 10, my head was good and cluttered with too many words for the same things, and my mother tongue began to take on a new form. It shifted from elementary Portuguese to more of a hybrid — a mix of three or more languages, hand movements, sound effects, and exaggerated facial expressions. I speak it fluently, as does my family and a lot of the kids I grew up with, all of us making it up along the way. Our accent is exclusive to Toronto — specifically, within the borders of Rogers Rd, Oakwood and Ossington, Dundas, Lansdowne. It’s as hyper-local as a language can get.

* *

I spent a few weeks this summer working as a translator/ interpreter for a group of Brazilians. I had worked with the same group the year before, so I tried to anticipate and accommodate their accent, their grammatical quirks, their style of expression.

“Ehhh, Portugal!” they call me. “Oi, Portuguesa, tudo bom, tudo bom?”

My accent, of course, is nothing like a Portuguese-from-Portugal accent. I don’t even speak real Portuguese words half the time — something the Brazilians are happy to point out. It was only a few years ago that I realized the words my parents had used for “sneaker” or “appointment” or “cheap” were actually just the English words with heavy accents. It reminded me of Acadian French in how makes sense where you come from, but is totally inaccessible everywhere else.

Both Junot Diaz and Ta-Nehisi Coates have said that they’ve long been accustomed to not understanding everything they hear or read, to not picking up every reference or SAT word. That’s why, if their audiences don’t exactly pick up on everything they say or write, it’s no thing. It’s fine to be confused or left out sometimes. We feel that all the time.

In my assignments for journalism school, I’d always get called out for not explaining the meaning of every “exotic” word in parentheses, so as to demystify it for my reader. My prof would scrawl, in red: What’s a salwar kameez? Help the reader. My silent retort was: If my reader doesn’t know what a salwar kameez is, they’d better find out. Instead, I always obliged with a definition.

[Sidebar: as happy as I am that Da Kink In My Hair scored itself a TV deal, and with Global of all networks, I’m a little put-off by the “speak patois” section of the website. I mean, it’s by no means exhaustive, and some of that shit is pretty funny and poignant, but I imagine it came out of a request from Global execs for the ladies to “de-mystify” their language for a broader audience. I think those who watch and can’t decode the patois bits should enjoy their confusion. It’s good for you. Shouts to Oakwood & Vaughn! Brrrrap!]

Language and communication are too elastic to be held down by borders, to alive to be held down by fear. Hybrid-weirdo-language or not, my mother’s tongue is my own. It’s speaks volumes to where I come from, how I’ve been raised, and how my world is painted. That’s not something you let go of for nothing.


  1. Pomegranate Queen Pomegranate Queen September 9, 2008

    “Hybrid-weirdo-language or not, my mother’s tongue is my own.”

    Word up.

    A few weeks back one of my aunties stopped me mid-conversation and pointed out how “interesting” it was that I would switch between Farsi and English words in the middle of my sentences. There was definitely a judgmental tone, implying that I didn’t really speak my mother tongue well.

    I had never noticed the extent to which I did that. To me, I *was* speaking in my mother tongue.

    Faringlish. That’s what I speak. And even though Farsi was the only language I knew for the first 9 years of my life, 21 years later, I embrace this hybrid-tongue. Which to me is a beautiful expression of where I’ve come from and where I’m at. A reflection of my hybrid self.

  2. Susana Susana September 18, 2008

    I really like the idea of your hybrid-tongue being so personalized, like a signature or fingerprint or scent. But, something you build over the years as you move and change.

  3. grace grace September 23, 2008

    please, please tell me where in the world you are. i’m close to calling toronto, but i don’t want to scare anyone. suu, i really want to see you in paris. email me quickly so we can arrange. i’m thinking moday september 29th, we’ll be arriving late at night and then staying the day on the 30th and driving out that night. speak to me

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