How stories in our mother tongue can keep culture alive.
No matter where we go, the languages we know from the cradle create powerful echoes throughout the rest of our lives. Like comfort food, one’s mother tongue can feel like home, even drawing people closer together in families and cultures spread across the globe. For Joanna Leung, preserving language was the driving force behind her decision to found Storylands, a unique app that allows children to access stories in their heritage language everyday.
“Language is the road map of a culture.” - Rita Mae Brown
Joanna’s sense of connection to her cultural heritage is significantly rooted in traditions and the language surrounding them. “Culture is the way of life where a group of people get a sense of belongingness when practicing. I connect the most to food we eat, things we do during festival, slang we speak as Cantonese, and collective memory we have as a generation.”
But during the events of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014, Joanna saw this way of life being threatened. “The culture of Hong Kong is very interesting since we were colonized by the British for 100 years and we were raised without a strong identity to a country. The culture differs slightly depending on the era the person was born in. I associate most with the era when we were colonized. However, what I found carry across generations is the spirit of Hong Kong, or core value of the people of Hong Kong - ‘perseverance and solidarity.’”
Joanna saw how integral this cultural story was to her life, and the life she wanted for her children. “I never realized what a big part of Hong Kong culture and Cantonese makes up my personal identity until the recent political changes happened in Hong Kong. I felt a strong sense of grief when I felt that the Hong Kong culture I grew up with is in the process of being erased.”
Raising her two children in Canada, a world away from Hong Kong, Joanna recognized the powerful impact that language and stories can have for kids who grow up away from their cultural roots, where erasure is often a risk. “I believe it gives meaning to custom if you know the story behind the customs and festivals. Since summer camp and daycare shut down when COVID happened, I hired my niece to run a Cantonese summer camp with my kids and a neighbour. I planned daily curriculum around a theme every week with writing/reading exercise, games, crafts, songs, stories, exercises/dance in Cantonese. With this summer camp, I had the opportunity to deep dive with the kids into the origin of the major festival we celebrate, the customs Chinese in different regions practice, folklore stories around the festivals, and hands-on crafts related to specific festivals, like lanterns for the Moon Festival.”
It was hard work finding these kinds of learning resources in Canada, but the results have been worth it. “My son and daughter are now able to relate to the festival in a much more personal level … I feel that I am creating memories and context for the kids to build a relationship to festivals and customs we celebrate in our culture, which is very important to make the culture and custom theirs.”
Joanna created Storylands to give even more children the tools they need to forge these stronger cultural connections. “Language is the expression and vehicle to culture. To preserve my culture, I started my startup, Storylands, to help parents pass on their heritage language to their kids through storybooks.” Storylands reads stories out loud in the language of your choice, allowing parents and kids to bond too. The goal is to make learning heritage language fun, with stories kids love.
In honour of International Mother Language Day, we invite you to try the Storylands app and follow Joanna’s creative journey @ourstorylands on Instagram and Facebook.
To capture and preserve your own family’s spoken stories, we also welcome you to explore Root & Seed’s free Conversation Tool.
What language(s) are part of your own unique heritage? Are there ways you’ve tried to include it more in your daily life?