I had a conversation with my son this weekend and it was as if he were talking in a foreign language.
While I could more or less understand the individual words, I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying at all. It got me thinking about how confusing it must have sometimes been for my parents, for whom English is a second language, when they talked with us.
My mother began studying English when she knew she would be joining my father, who had come to America to embark on the first of many degrees. She still recalls the stilted and unnatural intonation of the recordings she would listen to over and over again: “I am a boy. I am a girl.” She never stopped working on improving her English. In later years, she always had an old paperback copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style stashed in her purse to study whenever she had a free moment. She read it so many times, it eventually had to be held together with a rubber band. The spareness of her Strunk and White-influenced English was enriched by the ornate language of the 19th century novels she also loved to read. From reading Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, for example, she talks about “countenances” rather than “faces.” But it’s her adoption of more modern colloquial expressions that always takes us by surprise. I was once driving her somewhere when she discovered that she had been sitting on my sunglasses.
“Oh! I was wondering what was poking my butt!” she said.
I started cackling.
“What?” she said with a grin, “Should I have said, ‘I was wondering what was pricking my ass?!'”
After all his long years of study and the countless hours he’s spent poring over philsophical tomes, my dad lightly bandies about words like hermeneutics and teleological with the Korean accent he’s never lost. As children, our own native English skills would be called into service from time to time to edit articles he’d written. I still die a thousand deaths whenever I think of the time I changed all his “Platonics” into “Platoics” in one of his articles. Callow adolescent that I was, what did I know of philosophy? I hadn’t yet gained the wisdom to know that I knew nothing. Native speaker that I am, I will never know the meanings of half the words that are part of my dad’s lexicon.
My dad’s English is also nuanced with phrases snatched from more popular sources, and especially from the television shows that he sometimes watched with us when we were children. His discourse is peppered with phrases like “Aw, shooks.” Thanks to some old cartoon, he says “meeses” instead of “mice.” When my incessant prattling got too unbearable, he’d interrupt me midstream, waggle his thumb and say like some hoodlum in an old gangster movie, “Hey. Get lost, will ya?” or sometimes just, “Shaddup, will ya?”
The substandard language his own children used also added to the linguistic confusion. I’m ashamed to admit that my brother and I went through a regrettable phase when we used to call each other “booger.” My dad bore it for as long as he could, and then one day he pulled us aside. “Adrienne, Teddy,” he said gravely, “I don’t want you to use that word anymore.” He heroically soldiered on, though it was clear that each word he uttered was causing him pain, “I know you don’t realize it, but it has sexual connotations.” Teddy and I were mystified and also a little horrified as we tried to imagine what kind of monstrous sexual perversion could take place via the nostril. It was only years later that we learned the word he had thought we were saying…bugger.