>If ever asked what languages I speak, I answer that I speak English… and Crochet. But English is not my first language. What I heard at home for the first five years of my life was a patois that was primarily Cantonese with the odd bit of English for words that had no translation — Mickey Mouse, the Boston Red Sox for example. I don’t remember speaking Chinese, nor do I recall learning English. What happened was calculated by my parents to help me better assimilate into American society.
The legend goes that I came home from my first day of kindergarten with a note pinned to me that said “Please speak English at home”. Did my parents take this as some kind of law or a warning from the Language Police? Because that’s what happened. They spoke only English to us kids and Cantonese to each other when they couldn’t be bothered to translate or when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. By the time my younger brothers started school, nobody had to pin notes to them.
I knew kids who grew up in Chinatown or lived with old-fashioned grandparents. Those kids continued to use Chinese at home or attended Chinese school in addition to regular school and became completely bilingual. I regret that I no longer speak any Chinese; I can only understand a few baby words and a few choice insults. And as much as I wish it could have been otherwise, I completely understand why my parents chose the course they did. We lived in America, we were Americans, we should speak American.
Which ain’t easy. There are phonemes and morphemes in English that don’t exist in most other languages. My mother would have a real tough time saying “ask the crazy judge to taste the rarest shrimp straight”. Who wouldn’t?
Then there’s the problem of grammar, context, slang and spelling. About the time I started school so did my mom. She took night classes in English and studied to become a U.S. citizen. (She also took driving lessons because my dad made her a nervous wreck when he tried to teach her.) Despite the effort she never became totally comfortable in English. And she was stuck with such a bratty child. I smugly used words in front of her that I knew she didn’t understand, impatiently, impertinently and insensitively corrected her flawed pronunciation and grammar, felt ashamed of Mom and Dad for being so foreign. That I survived to adulthood is a testament to my loving parents’ forbearance and restraint.
Even a native speaker can mispronounce words, hear words incorrectly or not get the meanings. That happens to all of us. When we’re young and confronted with these linguistic glitches, we just wing it. The human brain functions as a great filler-in of the gaps. It struggles to makes sense of stuff according to past experience, even if the result is nonsense. Funny things can happen.
My partner John admits he thought for most of his childhood that the prayer went “… and Lena’s snot into temptation…” instead of “lead us not…”. It made perfect sense to him at the time. He had a cousin Lena, he knew what snot was. What’s the problem?
The most inane things can stump us for years. I never caught on to one of the lines in the theme song from The Flintstones. For a long time I made it out to be “through the curb to see a place to eat”. When I finally understood it was “through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet” the world became a much scarier place.
Who hasn’t struggled with incomprehensible song lyrics? “Louie, Louie”. I rest my case.
As a professional radio disc jockey, I heard dozens of misunderstood song titles from callers on the request line. Some gaffes stick in your mind longer than others. To keep things interesting during ratings sweeps, stations used to resort to running contests and theme weekends; the smaller the radio market and the goofier the air staff, the more idiotic the themes. Toward the end of a brainstorming session at an oldies station, with every new suggestion lamer than the last, a colleague suggested we play songs that had the word “color” or had colors in the title or lyrics. “Lady in Red”, “Color My World”, “Blue Bayou”, “Green-eyed Lady”. You get the picture. When someone chimed in “Melon-color Baby”, it broke the place up, and trust me, we thought we had heard it all. That’s exactly the way my mom’s brain would have filled it in. “Melancholy” is not an everyday word. She knew what a melon was and she knew what color melons were. I stored away that anecdote for future reference.
Eventually it came back to bite me in the butt. Infants who are born with immature liver function have high levels of bilirubin in the bloodstream, a pigment that makes the babies appear jaundiced – melon-color. Both my sons came out bright, International orange. A higher than normal bilirubin (or “belly ribbon” according to my mom) count is not a cause for undue concern. Harry had to spend the first couple of days of his life in an incubator under a blue light. I was able to take Nick home right away, but it was suggested that I leave him in a sunny window whenever possible. They both survived. You can guess what song became the first lullaby they ever heard. A mental block prevented me from ever learning the correct complete lyrics. But the boys never seemed to mind.