Mother Tongue

IMG_9955As a part of Seattle University’s annual “International Week,” I sat in a crowded boardroom over lunch for a special “Say My Name” workshop (pictured left).

Over 850 international students call Seattle University home, from over 60 countries around the world. A few of these students were our teachers this afternoon, helping us with cliff notes on pronunciation for the most popular of first and last names in their languages–Arabic, Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese, Tamil, and Vietnamese.

There’s something to a human name. It’s the word given to us often long before we evolved into the selves by which we now self-identify. Or it was a word we ourselves chose for people to call us everyday. Sure, remembering names can be easier for some of us than for others, but we all recognize how important calling each other by name can be.

I love the phrase “mother tongue” to describe the language we learned first in life–and even while we were still in the womb. Our mouths developed used to forming words with certain pronunciations. There is familiarity to hearing someone speak the way you speak–let alone use the words you use, and say your name how  you’re used to hearing it said.

IMG_9959I’ll never forget first meeting Sirio while teaching English in Italy (pictured right; he and I at the top of Mt. Vesuvius / Vesuvio). Sirio was not only from the same country as myself, but shared California roots. Colleagues immediately observed and commented on how we used the same slang words, and even how our pace of conversation and tone changed whenever we talked together. There was a comfort in our “mother tongue” of California-specific, American English.

Though talking with Sirio was refreshingly natural, it was a value for me to go out of my way to talk with people very different than myself–not just because I had to in my work, but because I deeply wanted to learn from people of different cultures, languages, and backgrounds. I made a point everyday in conversation to slow my pace, eliminate slang, and enunciate my words with those who didn’t speak English as their mother tongue. I learned words not just in other languages, but also in regional dialects, so I could connect with how people made jokes or used idioms to express ideas. Long conversations happened over the dinner table with my Canadian and British colleagues as we talked about our different uses of the English language and how we could better understand and appreciate each other and our use of words.

Sociolinguists talk about language as power. (Learn more about sociolinguistics, here.) We don’t realize how, on a daily basis, we are exercising power of connection or disconnection with people based on the language we choose. This could mean our use of vernacular, vocabulary, slang, and the volume or tone of our voice. It could also mean how we use or don’t use people’s names. And, if we pronounce them in a way that people recognize to be accurate.

Our backyard is global. Throw a glance down the street in most cities and towns in the United States today, and your eyes will fall on individuals and/or families from other cultures and/or ethnic backgrounds. How are we using language to connect and include? 

A few months back, I received a special lunch invitation from Thuy-Linh (pictured above), one of the international graduate students I have the opportunity of working with in my marketing communications role. She surprised me with a feast of Bánh mì, Thit nuong, Banh cam, San Luoc & tea. Thuy-Linh not only gave me the opportunity to experience an incredible Vietnamese meal with her, but let me into her life, story and passions. My eyes brimmed when she shared about the great love of her life back in Vietnam, saying “The only thing I’m proud of is my love.” Her story and words struck me deeply–seeing her courage in making a new country her home, her resilience with all of the challenges life has brought her, and the boldness with which she loves and receives care from others.

What opportunities do you have this week to include, learn and share? 

How can you honor people in your life who come from different cultures (even from within the United States), nations and cities around the world?

What names can you remember and learn to pronounce well?

What of yourself (your story, traditions, cultural roots) can you share with someone else?

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