Thursday 11 February 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Daughter and the Shouting)

In the spirit of contributing to our green cyber-environment I will be uploading (shall we call it 'recycling'?) past posts every now and then. I look at it from the point of view of someone who has become an eco-cyber warrior instead of one of Jack Kerouac's drifters, bereft of rudder or compass. But as usual, you're more than welcome to make up your own minds. :-)

- Do not interrupt me when I'm talking, and DO NOT CORRECT ME!!!

Thus spoke Daughter recently, or rather shouted at me. And yes, my dear reader/poster/fellow blogger, I hold up my hand in shame. I suffer from severe linguistic obsession.

You see, it's difficult for me to let grammatical errors slide by and glide aimlessly into the void generated by half-said phrases, onomatopoeias and grunts which are actually words, only that they sound like grunts. I'm obsessed about my children learning good Spanish and on occasions I've been known even to correct Wife, who's a fluent speaker of the language I grew up with. I was aware that something was wrong when in a normal conversation I would be more attentive to her use of the subjunctive mood than the real content of the message she was trying to convey to me. And now, the problem has been compounded by my children's involvement in my condition. To their chagrin, I'd dare say. So, mea culpa. That's me.

How did it all start? And when? Well, the when I can point out. Uni. Yep, that's when all hell broke loose and I suddenly found myself immersed in this competitive environment from which I could not escape, nor did I want to. Because although it pains me to admit it, I loved linguistic competitiveness back in my Uni years. Over the years, and when I added German and French in that order to the cluster of languages I spoke fluently I developed a strong attraction towards both the minute details and the more noticeable aspects that made those two languages, in addition to Spanish and English, so different from each other and yet so alike. I learnt that 'water' in English probably came from 'Wasser' in German, as the former is a Germanic language, too. Same with 'eau' (French) and 'agua' (Spanish), both romance languages. But when it came to in-laws, well, the situation got funny, and that 'funny' was both ha-ha and weird. In German father-in-law is 'Schwiegervater', in French it's 'beau-père' and in Spanish 'suegro' or 'padre político'. So whilst in French they praise you and compliment you on your physical beauty, in Spanish they're thinking of snap elections.

The how is harder to explain. I guess that I was sucked into this linguistic vortex because of my natural inclination to question my surroundings, an attitude that as long as you restrict it to languages in Cuba keeps you on the safe and sane side. And now I'm paying the price, because whereas Son is capable of translating entire books (the easy ones, mind), Daughter is beginning to go through the same motions he went through a few years ago. And we're clashing. Big time. I guess, I'll have to bide my time and be more patient because she's equally intelligent and capable as Son is. I am the one who have the problem. On the same note, living in a bilingual world in the UK makes me anxious. British culture is a very strong force with a strong identity (despite the alleged crisis) and language is one of the ways in which children with parents from different backgrounds, especially as in my case, with one of them born in Britain, can assert their individuality and build upon both sets of identities. The way we speak Spanish in Cuba is very peculiar and carries with it myriad cultural references that I'm positively sure will enrich my children's lives. And for that I'm prepared to change and be more patient.

Now, about that shouting...

Copyright 2010
Illustration courtesy of Garrincha


  1. Great post. I'm with you on the correcting thing -- I'm wincing at the number of times today alone that I corrected my eight year old son's grammar.

  2. there a green cyber environment movement in effect that i missed out on, or is this a product of your genius-ness? i like the notion, especially the part about recycling posts.

    matter of fact, i think i *do* use some eco-cyber techniques, but now i have a name for it! :-D

    this post makes me laugh at myself since i'm also one who can get distracted by grammar usage and be less attentive to the message.

    i blame my college english studies and the mind bending courses on linguistics, grammar, and the like.

  3. re the alleged crisis in British culture.

    If we're talking about the same thing (i.e., culture as identity), I think it's a "crisis" in English -as opposed to British- culture. From where I stand in England, the Scottish, Welsh and Irish cultures seem a lot more clearly defined than my own.
    I can only think the situation stems from the fact that England is made up of several "national identities" - Yorkshire and Cornwall spring to mind immediately.

    Incidentally, on the subject of words, a word that always gets me thinking is "dapper". It is supposedly derived from Middle English and Middle Dutch, but I'd like to think it shares the same ancestry as "guapa".

  4. *Smiles at above correlation of dapper and guapa*

    Guilty as charged, I correct grammar often, so often in fact, that I've had to come up with cumbersome "saves" when I've done it in mixed company. As a home educator, I'm always 'on' and it's just become habit, I suppose.

    And, I feel your pain on the shouting. In 18 years of raising a son I have never encountered so much as half the intensity of raising a 10 year old daughter.

  5. It's a tough one, Cuban. Imagine yourself how it might feel for you to be continually interrupted mid sentence.

    I suspect the best way to teach language is through example: You speak well and your children will absorb it. Keep interrupting them and in time they will rebel.

    This is a wonderful post, Cuban. And your humility is reassuring. At least you acknowledge your foibles.

  6. If she was saying don't correct her about anything else, I would say that's an unteachable attitude that itself needs correcting. But I can sympathize with your daughter.

    At the school where we learned a language I won't name here, the conversational coaches had been instructed to correct us EVERY time we made ANY kind of mistake, including pronounciation. Of course, no amount of correcting is going to make your ear develop any faster. All it meant was that for the first few months, we could never finish a sentence in the presence of those coaches who actually followed this rule. It used to drive me nuts. If the lesson is focusing on grammar, then PLEASE let me say my sentence with the new grammatical feature, without telling me not to aspirate my stops. If I'm thinking about grammar, I'm going to forget the pronounciation.

    To be fair, my husband, who is VERY audially oriented, loved it. He said, "When we get out of this school, nobody is ever going to give us feedback like this again." And he was right.

    Great cartoon.

  7. Oh, I like the sound of your daughter. She'll sort herself out no bother!

    I loved using the subjunctive in Spanish...what a joy.

    I think for a lot of people who grow up with English as their first/local language they have to know that there is a vagueness...a how it works grammatically...and from what I remember Spanish has less of that surrounding it. I remember visiting a school in Madrid and hearing them recite rule after rule in Spanish language class but on the whole we don't learn rules for English grammar in English schools (bits of rules maybe but not much that's hard and fast). I know there are lots of people who think that's a mistake but personally I don't mind a bit of linguistic looseness (though I am a bit of a spelling our house the nags are more likely to be 'yes, but can you spell that?'). My daughter is at a Scottish school of course...I can't speak for the Scots!


  8. Really interesting post, I think about the mixing of languages a lot indeed, not that much in real life but more trough internet indeed, and I guess language are being mixed diveded subdivided and modified much quicker than the past due to the globalization we are currently living in.

  9. I'm glad you repeated this post.
    My kids had a Greek father who hardly spoke any English; so I had to learn Greek. I already had E/F/G, so it was not too difficult.

    The kids are okay with G and E, have forgotten any other language they picked up along the way and don't find it necessary to relearn them, now they are adults.

    As for my English mate, his E is faultless, highly literary, so I can't correct him, but, because I am such a pernickety stickler, I get to correct a lot of native E speakers.

    Somebody once said, how would you know, you're not even English, when I corrected (nicely) one of his howlers.

  10. Grammar, language, children, culture. I had to look up subjunctive mood on Google. Since I am slightly hung over, it was a waste. My parents speak Spanish but we grew up only learning English. It is a puzzle to me to ask them to translate something and have it be so difficult. Or explain a joke told in Spanish. They always say, "It's just not the same." And anytime I tried to speak Spanish to my mother she would least you only interrupt and correct~!

  11. Oh that sounds very familiar. Teachers always have the urge to correct and your own children never appreciate it. My daughter has just finished rolling her eyes because I corrected her use of the word "beastly," which is a very popular slang term that drives me crazy. I think your daughter will remember your corrections in the long run, whether she wants to or not.

  12. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  13. My first son took his time to speak. Basically until I almost took him to see somebody, a doctor or a speech therapy. And his first words were choo choo train. As if he finally decide to copy the train.

    I suspect, the reason he had to take his time was because, all his caretakers spoke English but with such varied twang and not to mention grammar. Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle, Aunty, sll had their own English. The maid did not speak English, she spoke Indonesian. We spoke Malay but of completely improper language of the north. Dad was the only one with the proper grammar and twang. And he was really particular about not just grammar, but whether the boyz sounded their "TH" or not. Boy that was quite tough. And the way I pronounced "squirrel" was the laugh of the family. How I hated that. (This is completely irrelevant your honour).

    This should be a post. Maybe I'll recycle it at my blog.

  14. Dear Cuban, you have a fabulous sense of humour, coupled with an even better turn of phrase. It's so easy to read you (and that's a compliment) 'cause it all just flows so well.

    I laughed out loud at your paying more attention to form than substance! There are times when I get fixated by what I think is a little mistake in a French person's speech and completely miss the rest of what they said - only to be expected to respond to it!

    I'm a dullard compared to all you proficient polyglots (Friko, that's you too!) and kind of wish I had started my linguistic explorations a lot sooner, or at least gone at them more seriously. I don't mind being corrected, but not in public!

  15. Many thanks to you all for your wonderful comments. I have to say that I have toned down my criticisms a lot now. I just let the children go with the flow.

    Greetings from London.



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