Little language vignettes

After picking up a collection of short stories on clearance at a bookstore earlier this year, I rediscovered a wealth of beauty in the novella. That seemingly random purchase taught me so much about the art of the short story and story anthologies. One source I read explained that short stories used to be popular in glossy magazines until radio, movies and television changed the landscape. Maybe that was when the reader began demanding more out of entertainment. Or perhaps authors realized that there wasn’t much money to be made until that first “big book“ was written.

Short stories may have lost some of their currency for mainstream readers, but they are a perfect format for my current season of life with young kids. You know, when those days bumming around in a café with a thick book feel like a distant past. When finishing any book feels like a heroic accomplishment. If that rings true for you too, these four teeny tiny vignettes about language learning from the past month might be right up your alley. None of them are remarkable on their own, as stand-alone pieces, and none of them have any literary value, but together, they give you a gist of our day-to-day language environment. Sorry but not sorry, they each involve my kids in some way, because again, those tiny beings consume most of my waking hours..

The story of the salt & pepper lady whose mind got tricked
We entered the quiet suburban library to collect our “summer of reading” prizes after reaching the kids’ reading goals. A kindly middle-aged woman, beautifully owning her lovely salt & pepper hair, greeted us at the front desk. Her conversation with me was full of understanding of this phase of life from the moment she caught a glimpse of the potato sack toddler fast asleep over my shoulder. As she filled out gift certificates and let us choose a special book to keep, she recounted memories of skipped naps and tantrums and other scenes as they flipped through her mind. Ayo was far more fascinated by a spotless vitrine showcasing Lego constructions, next to the lovely salt & pepper lady. Of course he wanted to play with the Lego crane rather than collect a book. Of course. “Mamaaaaan, je veux jouer avec la grue!” he howled as he smeared finger sucking hands right across the glass. As we do, I turned to my son and began a lively discourse in French about the Lego display and how we really couldn’t play with them, ‘so would you please come and show the kind lady that you appreciate your gift?!’. It might have been a one minute exchange. By the time we turned back, something had happened. The warmhearted salt & pepper lady had slooooowed down her speech and began speaking with painfully wide and exaggerated gestures. Her sentences became simple and concise. An unspoken distance appeared between her and myself at that point, as if to say that we were now different. This librarian’s mind had tricked her into making an assumption about my English language competency based on that quick exchange in French. In her world, there was no way this library customer could master English in addition to another language. In this multilingual world, we often assume the language ricochet is normal but it still is foreign to many..

The story of the smiley stalker who spoke flawless French
Come a certain age, it’s no longer a fun outing to go to the grocery store. Between the expensive mystery items that appear in your shopping bag after checking out and the endless begging, dare I mention the sibling squabbles and the sticky hands pulling off from the shelves six packs of beer? It can be exhausting. For these reasons, I count myself super lucky to have a husband who loves to shop for gorgeous fresh food ingredients as a hobby. No, really. So off we were one Saturday afternoon to stock up on groceries, dividing and conquering: girls in the produce section, boys attacking the dairy. I eventually noticed a man in his 50s following us around making Délice laugh as she demanded to hold the apple she kept dropping. Ayo was about four aisles over yelling in French and asking if we needed Goji berries “Maaaaaaman, est-ce qu’il nous faut des gojis ? Maaaaamaaaaaaan??? ” I’d respond ‘nope’ and off he would go to ask for the next thing. As our eyes met every few aisles, hubs and I verified we hadn’t double shopped. “Are you getting the fish?“ or “Did you remember the milk?“ I would ask him in English. Smiley stalker man was now getting creepier as he seemed to always be just a few steps behind me. As creepers do, smiley man conveniently appeared in our elevator as we each descended to the parking area. At last mustering up a lot of courage, he broke out his nearly flawless French to tell us that he missed this beautiful language so very much. He had lived in France 30 years ago and miraculously kept a solid command of the language (or at least of the phrases he had been rehearsing in his head for this moment!). We keep meeting French speakers in our city. Based on these encounters and over the years, we have definitely learned not to use our fairly widespread tongues as a secret language tool. Because folks, you never know who can understand your language!

The story about how deeply ingrained cultural language ranking is
It was taking a long time to get papers from this medical office. Délice had been moderately entertained by the low lying aquarium until the fish had preferred to hide from the playful toddler taps on the glass. I played a bit with her to distract her from the ongoing waiting game. The receptionist pulled out a bright red waggling flower in a gaudy pot, which was nice for about 37.3 seconds. “What language is that anyway?“ she asked me. And when she heard it was French, she commended us parents for speaking to our kids in another language. “What an awesome gift you are giving them“ she applauded, “it’s not like those people who just speak Spanish to their kids“ she continued, as if to imply that Spanish-speaking parents withhold English from their children. The funny part of this story is that the receptionist hadn’t heard us speaking English to our daughter either. It could very well have been our story that we were only speaking French to our daughter. Through her blatant dismissal of Spanish-speaking parents, this lady made it clear that Spanish did not share the same language status as higher ranking languages like perhaps French, Italian or German. I actually don’t feel flattered at all to speak a so-called higher status language. I’ve written about language status in previous posts and how it does make it easier on families like mine, and how ranking is different in other parts of the world. In the US, a lower status language might be Spanish, while in Germany it might be Turkish or in the UK Bengali or Punjabi. Regardless, the more I come across it, the more tremendous respect I gain for parents pushing through the uphill battle of teaching a lower status language.

Who’s yo teacha? The story of the Father who learned from his three-year-old son
We were returning home from a gorgeous summer bike ride. I am forgetting the context now, but I said a word to my boy in French that my husband didn’t understand. It was likely some obsolete piece of construction machinery, which is Ayo’s new-found fascination. “What was that word??“ Tall Mountain asked me. I barely could slip in a translation before Ayo took the teaching role upon himself: “Papa, can you say Moi-sson-euse-Batt-euse?“ “Gob job, papa!“ “Now, try to say Caaaaa-mion, can you do that?“ “Not bad!“ and off he trailed for the next ten minutes, teaching his papa French pronunciation based on anything and everything that was around him. This is not an uncommon occurrence in our household, even if TM actually has a very good grasp of everything that is being said in our minority language. Ayo becomes the little translator, as if he isn’t totally sure papa got that last part. “Maman say I could not wear this elastic band around my arm when I go night-nights” he will translate, even if TM was standing in the room when I reeled it off the first time in the other language. Translation goes both ways, with the exception being that Ayo won’t teach me words in English. I usually do however, get some form translated back into French when papa says something like “Ayo, let’s play in the little pool outside, buddy!”. My little includer will explain: “Maman, papa dit qu’on va jouer dehors dans la piscine!“ He will never translate for me outside the house though – so he must know on some level that I speak English. Phew!

7 thoughts on “Little language vignettes

  1. Great stories, E.!! I l was even challenged to take an inventory to see if I have any of those sort-of biases, or pre-conceived notions about language, that you spoke of. Regardless, I always enjoy your blogs. Thanks so much for sharing, dear daughter-in-law. You are such a special lady and such a special mommy. God has blessed me richly in you. I assume you are a special wife, too, but I will let my son expound upon that! Ha! All I know is that I am awfully glad he married you! xoxo

  2. Love the stories… love those babies even more! I wonder what Bubba will think when Papa is now the odd man out speaking English and how his translating will change.

    1. That will be an interesting dynamic for sure. Unless we joined forces to switch to English within the home, but that would be odd too..

      Also, you have met the salt & pepper lady, I think. And also, you rock for teaching your kiddos Spanish. And for many other reasons.

  3. I really enjoyed the stories! I too am getting language tutoring from my preschooler, and I don’t think patience or teaching are her strong suits. I’m thinking fascist film director will be a better fit for her. And I know my own extended family has some deeply ingrained language ranking. Fortunately, Brazilians speak Portuguese which no one in the US seems to have heard of let alone developed an opinion on. Heaven forbid my grandparents figure out Portuguese is a sibling of Spanish.
    Again, great stories. I love the vignettes format!

    1. Thank you so much, Brynn!

      You made me laugh so hard! How is it that these munchkins think they rule the world at this age? We are starting to get the finger close to the face, pointed high to the sky in protest when say there will be consequences for this or that behavior. “That will NOT be nice, papa!” he will scold. And then we all get confused. Wait a minute, who is the parent here? 🙂

      As for ranking, Portuguese definitely has a different status to Spanish where we are in the US, maybe because it is less widespread. I heard Portuguese behind me in a public bathroom the other day and I was so intrigued, they might as well have written the creepy stalker story about me, the woman who took too long to wash her hands in the bathroom. Such a lovely language indeed.

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