The unique emotional power of your mother tongue

Mother Tongues Stories

The unique emotional power of your mother tongue

especially if it’s a minority language

There is a beautiful poem by Galician writer Manuel Maria called “A fala” which starts with the line “O idioma é a chave, coa que abrimos o mundo”, your language is the key with which we open the world. 


Galego, Galician language, has been my key to navigating and decoding the world I live in and I would like my daughter Sabela to have and use that key too, to pass it on, and make sure she knows this is part of who she is and what makes her herself. 

The gift of many keys

mother tongues stories

Having been born in Ireland to immigrant parents, she will be lucky because she will have many different keys to open different versions of her world. At home, we speak Galego, French (my husband Mark is English, but grew up in France) and English, with a bit of Spanish thrown in when needed.

I love the fact that we can all use different languages to communicate but I feel your mother tongue is charged with a unique emotional power, particularly if it’s a minority language.

Many times I have encountered a purely utilitarian view of speaking different languages to children which sits uncomfortably with me. I have been in situations where I have been asked why I don’t speak Spanish to Sabela, instead of Galego. Mainly because in their opinion Spanish is a ‘more useful’ language. This has happened to my husband also, who speaks Galego really well. 

Do you need a reason to speak your own language to your kids?

The answer is obviously simple: Galician is my Mother Tongue, my first language. Could I speak Spanish to Sabela? Of course. I could also speak English. Do I want to? Not really. 
Do you need a reason to speak your own language to your kids? I don’t think so. 
You don’t speak your language based on how many speakers that language has, or how ‘useful’ it is in other people’s eyes, whether you are speaking to them in Irish or Mandarin. You speak it because it is part of you, just like your hands or your feet.

Many emigrants like me, decide not to pass on Galician to their children, changing to Spanish instead. Focusing on a
purely utilitarian view of the language. When this happens, I feel an important part of their identity and Galicia’s rich cultural heritage is lost and it makes me feel terribly sad.

In many cases, it reflects the “inferiority complex” of being a Galician speaker, a language that was considered ‘inferior’, ‘rural’, of no relevance; quite similarly to Irish speakers who emigrated to the States and the UK back in the day. 


This is a reflection of what happens with Galician people in Galicia too; growing up in the 80s I experienced that attitude often. Many of us Galician speakers at home, would switch to Spanish at school, just because it wasn’t cool; and parents would speak to their children only in Spanish just because ‘Galician was useless’. As if knowing your own language would take too much space in your brain… 

I love my language

I love my language, maybe more so because it has been so unloved by many. It still is. 

I speak Galego with my 4-year-old daughter in Dublin, hoping that one day she will love it as much as I do, that she will be able to read Manuel Maria, Rosalia de Castro, Celso Emilio… and so many other brilliant writers who protected the language and delivered it to us beautifully to keep it alive. I hope she can do the same with the Irish language.
Until recently she has mainly used a mix of the languages spoken at home, built on an English structure. Going to creche and now school, she has identified English as ‘her’ language, but when she manages to string a full sentence in Galego, it feels really special and emotional to me. English is definitely her dominant language but I feel she is starting to enjoy the fact that she can create sentences in other languages, and those languages connect her to friends and family in other countries.

Speaking a minority language means it is more difficult for her to see that language in use here in Ireland*. Recently she came home saying she was “Brazil”, as someone thought she might have been speaking Portuguese, which was funny but probably a bit confusing for her.
[*If you are a Galician speaker, join this Mother Tongues group!]


I recently read an interview with Loah, an Irish-African musician, who talked about how her parents consciously lived in both continents for a while for her and her sister to feel they were both Irish and African, and not just Irish girls with “foreign parents”.

I realised this was exactly what I would like for Sabela: to belong in both places, to feel both Irish and Galician. I would like her to love the richness of being made of different cultures and those amazing languages that have survived this far, despite the odds.



Maria Golpe

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