Beyond the Mother Tongue

For many of us, the thought of ever forgetting how to speak your mother tongue—the language of one’s ethnic group, would seem preposterous. But for the younger generation of immigrant families, it is fast becoming a reality. Much of the advertising we see today in Canada is created in the English language. So too is the advertising that runs across the Asia-Pacific region.Due to globalization, the English language has become a gateway to the world and in the urge to keep up with this development, the mother tongue of Asian countries is slowly becoming degraded. It is fashionable these days to converse in English, and in some communities English is being flaunted as a status symbol.

What’s more, to get their children admitted to English schools, Asian-Canadian parents are enabling English to become the primary language spoken at home. The mother tongue takes a backseat only to be spoken with elders. Language becomes a conundrum for some parents who are divided into two schools of thought. One school believes that they should teach their children all about their Asian heritage, including language, culture, values, and customs. The other school believes that they should raise their children as Canadians. On the other hand there are several people who fall somewhere between the two extremes – the bi-cultural school — which is significantly more popular, at least among the first generation immigrant parents.

Keeping their language while assimilating and learning the nuances of a new culture can be a challenging process for new immigrants to Canada. Canada has always been a country of immigrants who came to this country speaking their mother tongue and, in most cases, having some knowledge of English or French. For the 2011 Census, more than 200 languages were reported as a mother tongue or home language. The Census also noted that one in five persons (6.6 million) reported speaking a language other than English or French in the home (Environics).

Language: The Channel that Unites People

Like religion, language of origin can be a marker of ethnicity, and can provide socio-economic advantages like access to certain goods and services offered by or for the immigrant community.

Studies show that while immigrant groups of European origin have had more difficulty preserving their mother tongue in Canada over time, more recent immigrant groups, such as those who speak Spanish, Chinese or Punjabi, are generally more likely to maintain theirs. The most important factor is the extent to which children are exposed to those languages within the family or through contact with other people with the same mother tongue.

Having lived and worked in Asia for more than fifteen years, I came to realise how inextricably linked language and culture are. A language is not merely a means of communication. It is a channel that connects people of different backgrounds and unites people from the same place.

Learning new languages widens people’s perspectives and makes them more tolerant and broad-minded; it can also improve one’s creativity and thinking. It is the keenness to learn that bridges the barrier between the past and the present.

If you speak only English in Canada, you’ll get by quite easily whether you’re studying, making a living or travelling around the country, because English is the main language of communication and commerce here. But it’s not uncommon for young Asians living in Western countries to be stigmatised for not speaking their native language.

For some Chinese, the ability to speak Chinese affects their “Chineseness”. A 26-year-old Chinese friend of mine who recently went to live and work in Hong Kong found settling in there to be rather difficult because he couldn’t speak Chinese. In the West he was different because he looked Chinese. In Hong Kong he was perceived as different because of his inability to speak Cantonese, the local language of the city. Locals called him a “Banana” — yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

“I don’t feel less Chinese by not speaking Cantonese or Mandarin,” he told me. “I take an interest in and respect Chinese values that I’ve learned from my family over the years. But reflecting on the Cantonese phrases that I do know, as a person of Chinese ethnicity, I believe some ideas and feelings are better expressed in my native language.”

Language knowledge and use are clearly important considerations for Canadian marketers planning their multicultural communications strategies. Although the majority of ethnic individuals report being able to speak either English or French, it is likely that ethnic consumers might prefer—or at least appreciate—receiving communications in their mother tongue.

And the extent to which Canadians continue to use their mother tongue languages may be an early indicator of changing notions of assimilation, global perspective, and community. These Social Values play important roles in how individuals behave in the marketplace and what messages motivate them to act. As a result businesses should be careful to consider Canada’s changing linguistic profile when marketing to Canadians.

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