• Janette Chen (Supplied. )Source: Supplied.
My year traipsing around France mis-conjugating verbs had come at the cost of Mum being able to confidently make a phone call to Centrelink without an interpreter.
By
Janette Chen

4 Aug 2021 - 9:03 AM  UPDATED 4 Aug 2021 - 10:16 AM

In 2015 when I came back from my university exchange in Bordeaux, Mum was surprised I couldn’t confidently declare myself fluent in French. “What were you doing in France for a whole year if you still can’t speak French?” she said in Cantonese.  

“You also lived in Australia for 20 years and still don’t know speak English,” I rebuffed her in Cantonese. Mum opened her mouth and then closed it again. “I guess that’s true,” she smiled sheepishly at the floor. I felt satisfied at my clap back. Back then, it seemed like Mum was on my back for not studying hard enough. Was it because I became more sensitive to her expectations after being away from her for a year? 

This memory returned to me recently as I swiped away another push notification from Duolingo. The green owl was on my back about practising Chinese again. I put my phone on silent and went back to watching Netflix. My goal this year has been to pass through all six checkpoints in Duolingo. Right now, I’m in the Diamond League and about to hit Checkpoint 5. This qualifies me to fluently articulate the following: ask to be set up on a date (你的朋友很帅. 可以给我介绍吗?), leave a bad restaurant review online (那里的菜又贵又难吃), and ask for help when I need it (你会说英文吗?) all in Chinese (Mandarin when speaking; Simplified when writing).

“You also lived in Australia for 20 years and still don’t know speak English,” I rebuffed her in Cantonese

At the start of the year, I was rocketing up the top 10 on the leader board every week. That animated chest displayed its glinting blue lingots as I hit my daily goal. But the grind of working full-time and dodging COVID-19 eventually caught up with me as the year wore on. 

I wanted to learn Chinese, but not when I was taking back-to-back meetings, when I lay awake going through my catalogue of past mistakes, or when I was eating KFC by myself – my go-to stressed-and-depressed meal. I wanted to learn Chinese but I also wanted Duo the Owl to flock off. The frustration and guilt I felt for not having studied Chinese for the day compounded the guilt and frustration I felt about not having replied to all those emails yet and for having eaten a bucket of popcorn chicken by myself.

The frustration and guilt I felt for not having studied Chinese for the day compounded the guilt and frustration I felt about not having replied to all those emails yet and for having eaten a bucket of popcorn chicken by myself

Learning a language takes a lot of effort. I stared at the cartoon owl and all at once, I could see clearly why Mum spent all those years being what she called “blind and deaf and mute” to English with its twist of Australian vernacular. Learning a language takes a lot of intention and that’s on top of the push it takes to wake up at five in the morning to clean classrooms and wrangle two naughty daughters every day. That’s how Mum spent so many of her years living in Australia.

For me, learning French was easy. I started when I was in Year 7 when my only job was to study. And I was starting with knowledge of English. I already knew what an omelette and a cul-de-sac was. I picked French because I had already had enough of those Saturday morning Chinese lessons during my primary school years. No matter what language I was learning then, I had the time to focus. I barely had to look after myself. Mum was doing that for me: paying my rent, cutting my fruit, reminding me to go to sleep at a reasonable hour. 

For me, learning French was easy. I started when I was in Year 7 when my only job was to study. And I was starting with knowledge of English

My year traipsing around France mis-conjugating verbs had come at the cost of Mum being able to confidently make a phone call to Centrelink without an interpreter. Mum did all this only to have this ungrateful goober come back from exchange and ask her what she’s been doing in Australia for the past 25 years  without speaking much English. 

I could have explained to Mum that my French was just good enough: I had taken my classes and exams in French. But instead, I had bristled at her question and lobbed it back at her. What had I been doing that year in Bordeaux? I browsed the shelves of the small English language library at the university. I went to the 4€ morning screenings at the cinema that was a converted nunnery. I ate baguettes and, admittedly, did not study hard enough. Maybe that’s why I’ve picked up learning Chinese again in my late 20s, to make it up to Mum. 

This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.

Listen to SBS Voices' new podcast, The New Writer’s Room, in the SBS Radio appApple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

RECOMMENDED
Don’t be afraid to pass your first language and accent to your kids
A second language can be a superpower.
I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know my family's native language
“So, do you speak Spanish?” It’s a question that never fails to make me squirm because I’m embarrassed to admit the truth.
When it comes to language, love isn't always lost in translation
Learning each other's expressions became a playful flirtation. Months passed with each of us teasing the other with words and expressions from our languages.