Celebrating linguistic diversity and imparting knowledge for the future.
Language is integral to the human experience, allowing us to express our thoughts and feelings in a way that no other mode of communication can replicate. It is also a key part of culture, with the unique power to connect otherwise complete strangers through a sense of shared roots and community. In our globalized world, different languages increasingly intersect—but what holds lifelong meaning for many is their mother tongue, the first language(s) that defined early memories and years. This is why recognizing initiatives that celebrate language, like International Mother Language Day, is so important.
The Significance Of International Mother Language Day
This holiday, which promotes multilingualism and linguistic diversity, falls every year on February 21. Announced by UNESCO in 1999 and more formally recognized by the UN in 2002, its mission is to preserve and protect all languages used by peoples of the world. The day originated with the people of Bangladesh, who fought for the Bangla language to be recognized on this same date.
In honour of International Mother Language Day, we spoke to two amazing entrepreneurs who are using their energy and business platform to help share language with the next generations.
Embracing Linguistic Roots In Our Community
For Happy Little Books founder Suzi, many of her formative experiences were shaped by her ability to navigate seemingly two different worlds through bilingualism:
“My family spoke Cantonese at home as that is our mother tongue. My mom, being a first-generation immigrant, has very limited knowledge of English. I still have memories of my mom and grandma being worried about sending me to school. They were worried that I would not understand my teachers on the first day of kindergarten. Although they barely knew any English themselves, they looked up simple English phrases like “I need to go washroom” and “I don’t know” so that they could teach me before my first day . . .
Although Cantonese is my mother tongue, English quickly became the dominant language as I grew up. It is what I used the most to communicate with my friends. I grew up in a neighborhood that has a high percentage of Chinese immigrants. When I got to high school, I was exposed to more friends who speak Cantonese fluently, and that’s when I learned the term “FOB”. It stands for “fresh off the boat”, same as the ABC sitcom. To me, it is a term used to refer to people that aren’t as culturally Westernized.
In high school, I had different groups of friends, some were Canadian Born Chinese (“CBC”) who mainly speak English and others who preferred Cantonese. Since I could fluently speak both English and Cantonese, I was able to easily converse and transition from one language to another based on the group of friends I was hanging out with. Sometimes I felt like having a dual identity. I would be hanging out with one group, speaking Cantonese only, and drinking bubble tea at Pacific Mall one weekend (bubble teas are delicious by the way), then switching to going to the arcade at the mall and watching A Walk to Remember the next weekend with my CBC friends.
I recall memories of being called a FOB by some CBC friends due to the way I looked, dressed, and being so fluent in Cantonese compared to them. Although I did not show any emotions at the time and would casually brush it off, I remember feeling attacked and embarrassed. I didn’t understand why I was shamed simply because I was being more "Chinese" than them.”
Over time, Suzi began to reframe these kinds of comments and recognize that there is strength in embracing her roots:
“Being able to speak a second language has landed me one of my dream jobs after I graduated from university. I became a flight attendant with Air Canada. Knowing a second language was one of Air Canada’s hiring requirements. At the time, I was only fluent in Cantonese and English and did not know any basic Mandarin . . . Since my flight attendant days, I have expanded my Mandarin vocabulary beyond chicken and beef . . .
All these comments actually made me stronger. I am proud of being able to speak fluent Cantonese compared to some of my friends, and I am thankful I am well immersed in Chinese culture. Nowadays whenever someone makes a similar comment to me, I proudly agree with them and reply back saying, ‘yes I am a FOB, it's great.’”
For Bright Bandar Co. founder Dhvani, being able to speak multiple languages was an integral part of growing up, and she already sees the positive impact passing down language has had on her own children:
“Having lived in Mumbai for the initial 10 years of my life, speaking multiple languages came naturally to me at a young age. While we spoke Gujarati at home and with my family, all the communication at school occurred in English (where we also had language classes in Hindi and Marathi), and Hindi (the national language of India) was regularly used for general interactions with friends or others (like shopkeepers). Growing up, learning multiple languages was almost effortless, as I was constantly exposed to a variety of languages on a regular basis . . .
I strongly believe that the key to understanding our culture lies in learning and developing native language skills. Being able to communicate in the mother language has helped my children better connect with their grandparents, participate in family conversations, familiarize themselves with traditions, laugh at cultural jokes, and truly understand their heritage and roots.”
Imparting Language For The Future
With International Mother Language Day’s focus on promoting linguistic diversity, we also want to showcase Suzi and Dhvani’s businesses, which are centred around raising curious, multilingual, and multicultural kids.
Happy Little Books is an online Chinese children's bookstore that was inspired by Suzi’s recognition that her daughter would be growing up in a trilingual household. While Suzi’s mother tongue is Cantonese, her husband’s is Mandarin. Although they communicate in English, it’s important to Suzi that her daughter grow up empowered with knowledge of these languages—but in her search for resources, Suzi realized there was a significant gap in the market for bilingual and trilingual parents in Canada.
“Language is the main reason why I launched my business . . . My goal is to provide parents and caregivers with the best curated collection of Chinese books for their little ones. I want our future generation to learn about the beautiful Chinese culture, and to embrace their Chinese identity. I want to create a platform where books and resources are readily available for anyone who is interested in learning the Chinese language and culture.”
Through Bright Bandar Co., Dhvani hopes to inspire young, curious minds to learn South Asian languages—“bandar” means monkey in Hindi/Urdu. Similar to Suzi’s experience, Dhvani realized there was a gap in the current Canadian market when she searched for products to help teach her children Gujarati. “On further researching this, I realized there was a HUGE gap in the availability of quality language materials in North America for all South Asian languages, not only Gujarati. This is when I decided to fill the gap and create these bilingual resources that parents were looking for, through Bright Bandar Co."
"At Bright Bandar Co., we curate bilingual books and toys in various South Asian languages to preserve our languages and culture. Our mission is to make it easier for South Asian parents to preserve their language and help them raise their own bilingual "bandar.”
As we mark International Mother Language Day this year, we encourage you to take a look at Suzi and Dhvani’s inspiring entrepreneurial businesses—you may just find your next great gift idea for your family or a loved one. You can also use this day (or any day of the year!) to explore your own linguistic roots.
To host a conversation with your family about mother tongues and cultural roots, we invite you to explore Root & Seed’s Conversation Tool.
Are there ways you try to preserve your mother language(s) in daily life? Share below!