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.

8 thoughts on “It’s a Polyglot World Out There.

  1. I’ve found that in truly multilingual societies where various languages are spoken regularly by the vast majority of people, there is a term what P was doing. In Wolof, it’s “jo” or “djo” depending on how you feel like spelling it. But it describes the act of speaking in front of someone in a language they don’t understand. It’s considered quite rude. And young people are conscious of it and they are scolded when they do it. Of course, that doesn’t stop many adults from doing it anyway, but that’s true of so many anti-social behaviors that we scold children for.

    • Sonia, that is so interesting. What intrigues me now is whether she continues doing it willfully or if she tries to adjust. My guess is that she will correct Claude, if Claude tries to say something in French to Suu.

      On a similar topic, I was at my Thai class, one on one but we are in open cubicles, and there were a few students chatting in very basic Thai, one Japanese, one Korean and two French ladies, one of which had a very strong and outgoing personality. My teacher decided to take a break and introduce me. The tall woman asked me in Thai where I am from, so I answered: New York. She turns to her friend and says, right next to me, “Oh Putain, une Americaine, ca alors..” but before she could potentially stick her foot it in much further, I interrupted and said “mais je parle couramment le francais” Talk about djo! She apologized profusely, blushed quite a bit and admitted she should be more careful. I found it utterly hilarious but then I am used to taking abuse from ‘les grenouilles et les roastbeefs!’

  2. Such an interesting post! We are dealing with this at a much simpler level. My son is a toddler and doesn’t be aware yet that people speak different languages. He seems to think everyone will understand him whether he speaks English or Spanish. Fascinating to see what it looks like as the child matures and becomes aware of these distinctions. Sounds like you handled this confusion really well! And how wonderful that you live in such a diverse society that your family has many opportunities to encounter such differences!

  3. Pingback: September Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism « All Done Monkey! Embracing the Magic in the Madness of Motherhood

  4. This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would wantHaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!

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