A Mother’s Love in Her Mother Tongue

How learning my mother’s native language has brought us closer

C.R. Hughes
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readOct 12, 2021

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A picture of the author and her mother circa 2004
The author and her mother circa 2004

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

‒Nelson Mandela

When I was a kid, I read the book Ender’s Game and I remember loving it. But now as an adult, I only remember one scene from that book vividly. In it, the main character, Ender, was speaking with his friend, Alai, and when they hugged, Alai whispered the word “salaam” to him. I remember the intimacy that was contained in that word. A word that was foreign to me but was even more foreign to Ender in his world where people only ever spoke “Standard” (English). But somehow, without even knowing what it meant, Ender knew that Alai sharing this word with him was special and something he held close to his heart. I experienced a moment like that recently when my mother told me she loved me.

My mom has said she loves me all twenty-three years of my life. She says it every time we get off the phone with one another, every time I leave her and my dad’s house, and randomly when I’m near her. I’ve heard those three words from her lips more times than I can count. But recently she said it differently.

“Na lia.

The words sounded melodic coming out of her mouth. Words that I had never heard before but contained the familiarity of my mother’s affection in them.

“Na lia.

The words were spoken in Vai, my mother’s native language. My mom was born and raised in Liberia, a small country on the west coast of Africa, but she rarely speaks her tribal language. Occasionally I used to hear her using the rich language with my grandfather when he was still alive, but it always remained a mystery to me. Something that only came with a bond that my mother and her father shared, I thought.

Growing up, my mom taught me many things. She taught me the importance of always learning because she was always picking up new skills (like baking, sewing, drawing, fixing things) and would always bring me home books she found at garage sales and thrift stores. She taught me and my three older sisters the importance of being independent and never…

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C.R. Hughes
Human Parts

Liberian-American. 25. I write things sometimes. Find me in other places: crhughes.carrd.co/