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International Mother Language Day: What Makes Your Language Special?

Here at Tandem HQ, we don’t need much of an excuse to celebrate languages and language learning. But how often do you take some time to show love for your native language? Every year on 21st February, the world celebrates International Mother Language Day. Established by UNESCO in the year 2000, the day celebrates mother languages while also encouraging linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

Here at Tandem, we believe that the best way to learn a language is to actually speak it! That’s why we’ve developed an awesome app that allows members to connect with native speakers and practice 150+ languages. It’s not just about learning from each other, it’s also about having fun while practicing languages together.

So what is a mother language?

Your mother language is your first language, or native language - the language you learned to speak organically from the world around you when you were a small child. You won't remember actively learning your mother language - you learned it intuitively, rather than consciously. If you're raised bilingual, you could have two mother languages (or even three or four, if your parents raised you that way!)

Why should we celebrate mother languages?

When trying to learn a new language, whether for study, work or just for fun, it’s easy to forget about the role that your mother language plays. Have you ever tried to explain something about your native language - perhaps a grammar rule, or why a certain bizarre idiom means what it does - to a non-native speaker? Doing this helps you see your own language in a new light, and prepares you well to accept and understand the complexities of your second language. That is perhaps one of the best things about language exchange.

When you share your language with someone who grew up with a different language, you learn to appreciate the cool (and perhaps trickier) bits of your own language. You would never have discovered these things otherwise! There's no better way to be shown the best bits of their language and culture in a way that would be impossible to get from a language textbook or from grammar exercises alone.

Working with us here at Tandem is a diverse mix of people from many different countries, all bringing with them a range of different native tongues. We decided to ask a few members of Team Tandem about their relationship with their mother language, and what it means to be multilingual!


kim team tandem

What’s the best thing about your mother language? My parents are from Vietnam, but I was born in Germany, so I am lucky to have two mother languages: German and Vietnamese. I like that Vietnamese is a very melodic and poetic language. As for German, I think it's pretty easy to learn because we have so many grammar rules which define how to say something. I know that most foreigners will disagree, but honestly, once you crack the grammar, you will fall in love with it. My favorite sentence in German is "der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod"  (the dative is the death of the genitive) - it perfectly describes German grammar.

Have your language skills ever helped you out of a tricky situation? I have ended up in the middle of nowhere so many times, especially in China, where hardly anybody speaks English. If you lose your way in the wrong district and can’t read the characters you get totally lost! I was so happy that I spoke a bit of Mandarin to be able to find the way to the next hostel or to be able to order food, and actually know what was coming to your table!

What’s your favorite foreign language word or phrase? Mamahuhu (马马虎虎). It’s Mandarin. Literally translated, it means half horse, half tiger. The actual meaning is something like “so-so” (neither horse nor tiger) so you can use it to answer any question where you don’t have a clear opinion. How is the weather? – Mamahuhu How do you like the food? – Mamahuhu Are you in the mood to go out? – Mamahuhu :)

Where in the world have your language skills taken you? Mainly Southeast Asia (China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Bali, Vietnam, Cambodia). My Vietnamese heritage means I have always been interested in Southeast Asia, particularly the food, culture and its many languages. I also have strong ties to  France (especially Provence & Côte d’Azur) – I love the language and the country. But I also really like the US, Italy, Spain, and England.


vilson team tandem

What’s the best thing about your mother language? My mother language, Albanian, has its own unique language branch, meaning there is no known common ancestor with any other language. It sounds really unique. Speaking it is kind of like having a language superpower!

Have your language skills ever helped you out of a tricky situation? Not that I remember…  but I do have a good record helping foreigners find their way with my language skills, which makes me feel great! Sometimes I’ve even been given freebies at foreign restaurants for helping them interpret between customers.

What’s your favorite foreign language word or phrase? The Japanese word "ikigai" - it means reason for being, kind of like raison d’être.

Where in the world have your language skills taken you? I wouldn’t say that I traveled directly because of my language skills, but being able to speak a few languages has helped me meet and talk to different people which is always nice and can be fun! And it has brought me to Berlin, which is great.



What's the best thing about your mother language? My mother language is Spanish. As it is a language spoken in so many countries, it is super useful when traveling. The language itself has a rich vocabulary which I love. It sounds soulful, though this depends on the accent. The one in my region is particularly pleasant - the best in my country for sure, though perhaps I'm a little biased!

Have your language skills ever helped you out of a tricky situation? Yes. Language skills have helped me, for example, when for some reason there's a group of people from different countries. I enjoy acting as interpreter for them to assure every party understands exactly what is happening. This is a common situation while traveling in a big group or when I attend cultural events with local people.

What’s your favorite foreign language word or phrase? My favorite Italian phrase is "In bocca al lupo", which means literally “into the wolf’s mouth”. It’s a good luck phrase for theatre and opera performers before they go on stage. In German I love the word "die Sehnsucht" - it means desire.

Where in the world have your language skills taken you? Every single step towards success in my life has been possible thanks to languages. My work as an English assistant at my university helped me save some money that was used later for traveling to Italy to do a masters degree in Computer Engineering. Afterwards, English helped me again getting a job in a multinational company, and this experience allowed me to find my current job at Tandem and move to Germany. Though many people in Berlin speak English, I'm trying to do my best to speak German. 

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