It’s a Polyglot World Out There.

Shhhhh Maman…you know when I speak to Suu in French, she doesn’t understand.

P whispered to me as we were cuddling a moment, catching up on the day’s events before I initiated the last steps of our nightly routine and sung her a lullaby.

I couldn’t quite pin her tone and expression. There was an air of complicity of sorts in sharing someone’s shortcomings. And yet, her physical expression changed to one of disinterest and the tone changed as she expanded a little on the topic. Finally, she ended up seeming genuinely concerned, even bordering on feeling pity.

It should be noted by readers that Suu is our wonderful Burmese helper (Yes I am spoiled ROTTEN!) who, in addition to her mother tongue of Burmese,  speaks Thai fluently, is learning English, having a decent working conversational level now. She also takes additional classes to learn how to read and write Thai. And on top of this, she is picking up French words the girls seem to favor for certain items or actions.

Rewind to earlier in the evening: I was trying to get something –I can’t tell you what at this point–done in my room and could hear that pitch. You know the one, increasingly grating, whininess and volume rising exponential with every passing complaint. P was hunting for her pink ‘stylo’. Suu, unsurprisingly, didn’t know that the word stylo means pen. It was the end of the day, P hadn’t eaten yet, she was tired, cranky, hungry and about to pitch a tantrum.

The Culprit

 

These types of misunderstandings are only one of many little wobbles we multilingual parents face. Agile in negotiating these small but treacherous rapids, I acted as any sane human would and jumped up to intervene before we hit DEFCON 1. While stumbling into the hallway, I shouted out to Suu, translating stylo, also letting her know where I last saw P using it, since she is still at an age where ‘looking for something’ entails her walking around with her eyes wide shut assuring me she is looking everywhere as she passes right next to whichever desired item is currently misplaced.

 

Over the summer, I’ve really noticed P’s awareness of different languages and in particular, how useful it is to know more than one language since she regularly encounters adults and children who readily switch back and forth in any number of idioms. More importantly, she has been taking note of people who end up lost, confused or simply left out when they can’t join in. I’ve also been very vocal about my desire to speak Spanish and Thai fluently and have made an effort, when appropriate (force feeding never got anyone anywhere, except perhaps for some delicious foie gras), to talk about my classes, teachers, homework, triumphs and gaffes.

Knowing this, I decided to point out the barrier:

Ma Cherie, Suu ne comprend pas le mot STYLO. C’est un mot français. Le mot anglais est PEN. Tu dois faire attention et lui parler en anglais car elle ne parle pas français.

Translates roughly to: Darling, Suu doesn’t understand the word STYLO. It’s a French word. The English word is PEN. You need to be careful and speak to her in English since she can’t speak French.

And yes the lack of capitalization in the French quote for languages is grammatically correct. English is also the only language that capitalizes i. Interesting article here on the subject.

It dawned on me that the stylo incident is what drove home the notion that Suu didn’t speak French and why she presumably shared this revelation with me that evening. We will look past the fact that I had pointed this out to her 90 minutes earlier.

Since then, P has made a point of declaring which languages various friends and family speak. Yesterday she told her best ‘boyfriend’ Lucas, a Franco-Chinese boy who speaks French, English, Mandarin fluently, that her father speaks a lot of ‘Español’.

This is the first time she brought up Spanish of her own accord. The seed is definitely planted. Here’s to hoping the nopal blooms!

—-This post was written for the September Bilingual Carnival. This month’s carnival is hosted by All Done Monkey and will go live September 27.