Thursday, December 17, 2009

Because my Spanish isn't nearly good enough, and neither is your Chinese

I used to ride the short bus to school.

Did I ever tell you about that? My brother and I attended a private school about 20 miles away from home for the kindergarten through eighth grade years. At any given time there were three to five other kids from our general neighborhood who attended the same school, and rather than set up an elaborate carpool network in those pre-minivan days, the parents got together and contracted a private bus through the local school bus company. And because they still would have been paying for a mostly empty 16-seater, they co-contracted with a group of parents of special needs kids from our general neighborhood who attended a special-needs school that was located near our school.

We were little. We knew those other kids were different but we didn’t really know (or feel concerned about) why.

Because we were little and had no handheld Nintendos or cell phones to text with we entertained ourselves on those long bus rides. The one time I really, truly got in trouble on the bus, it was because I was entertaining myself and everyone else.

I had made up a word game, which in essence was a non-word game, in which we invented the funniest sounding words and assigned them to each other. Some syllables just combine to sound humorous, don’t they? The bus driver didn’t find it humorous when I pointed to the oldest girl on the bus, a mentally retarded middle-schooler, a girl twice my age, and happily declared that she was the…Bimbo!

Okay, I didn’t know it was a real word.



{you have to admit if you just listen to the word lyrically, it does sound funny}


1. I didn’t know it was a real word at all, let alone a derogatory term.
2. The driver knew exactly how that word is customarily used and imposed her knowledge on a term that I was using without the benefit of any such etymological knowledge.
3. She also thought I was being insulting, perhaps bullying, and objectively I understand her protestations now but on that morning I was genuinely confused.

All of which combine to prove that
4. Language is not flat and we do not all understand it or interpret it evenly.

I think of this every time I see the BIMBO truck out making its deliveries – because clearly ‘bimbo’ means something different when it’s in Spanish and relates to food than when it’s in English and relates to young women.

Insert tasteless joke about seeing a bimbo delivery truck in your rear-view mirror here.

From their website’s “Who We Are” section:

BIMBO is synonymous with quality, trust, tradition and authentic Mexican flavor.

I don’t think that ‘flavor’ refers to the chicas.


There are a handful of Chinese kids in our daycare community, many of whose parents are graduate students at the adjacent university. I don’t know how many of E’s friends were born here or born abroad but their parents all sound foreign-born and speak excellent English to the rest of us with delicate, lilting accents and Chinese to their offspring in rapid-fire multi-syllabic constructs.

E has a very good ear, by which I mean she excels at picking apart sounds. I say this with love but she has a terrible singing voice so I don’t know if this talent will ever amount to much musically or in any other way practically. However, she can perfectly imitate her friend J’s lisp and a TV character’s stutter and the way the mother of one of her friends speaks with a high, nasal tone and another friend’s mother has a flat Philly-area accent.

And now she speaks Chinese (so she says). This has two facets: first, and more innocent, is that she mimics the accents of her friends’ parents while speaking English. She will speak to you in English, lightening the appropriate consonants and deemphasizing the first portion of certain syllables and blurring the distinct edges of Ls and Rs and altering the rhythmic flow of one word into the next until she does, in fact, sound like she’s speaking English with a Chinese accent. It’s uncanny good mimicry. And it appears more innocent, I annotate, because with her age and her naturally young, high voice, to anyone paying imperfect attention she just sounds like she’s going through that (annoying) phase so many girls her age do and that she’s speaking in baby-talk.

But also: she speaks ‘Chinese.’ She mimics the sounds of the Chinese language and strings together long phrases so fluently and with plausible syntax that to my non-Chinese-speaking mind she sounds incredibly accurate even though, like my verbal ‘bimbo’ moment of yore, she is speaking complete nonsense.

4. Language is not flat and we do not all understand it or interpret it evenly.

And therefore the question is: are her (non-)words offensive? Is her speech inappropriate? In my mind, no. Just as it never occurred to my six-year-old self that my new word could hurt someone’s feelings, E likes the sound of what she’s saying. She’s observing and experimenting and mimicking and tweaking. She’s being scientific, not obnoxious. Your suggestion that there might be a negative connotation to this behavior of hers would only perplex her. She’s figuring out how language operates, how languages operate.

But the Part B of that question cannot be ignored: to anyone who actually knows real Chinese, does she sound offensive? Like she’s mocking? I don’t know. And I would be horrified if the answer was ‘yes.’

And yet. I don’t want to talk to her about how this might be perceived as inappropriate because I’m not ready to staunch her experimentation or her love of (and demonstrated talent for) close observation. She’s teaching herself…what exactly, I don’t know…but she’s following a self-conceived inquiry to some kind of enlightenment. And I would be remiss if I halted that process. Plus, she still knows remarkably little about offensive person-to-person behavior or bullying or prejudice or mocking and I don’t want to introduce any of those negative concepts unnecessarily.

So I let her speak in her Chinese accent and in her ‘Chinese’ and hope she’s not overheard and misunderstood. I think about bimbos and how though I’ve never bought one they must taste so good and how her brain endlessly fascinates me and whether we can ever do this parenting thing well enough to be doing it right.
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Emily said...

Okay, I have a lot to say about this post. A LOT. So here goes:

a) My oldest daughter is constantly "speaking" Italian the way yours "speaks" Chinese. She speaks Italian to Italians, to Americans and to anybody else (from anywhere else) who's willing to listen. She's good at it too. Americans tend to think her Italian is just better than theirs, which is why they can't understand her, and Italians tend to think she's just little and not enunciating well, which is why *they* can't understand her. No one has ever been offended at her attempts--and the few people who've actually noticed that it's all just babble have been helpful and encouraging. Lately I've noticed that she's adding more real words and phrases into her babble, so I'm glad I didn't let my own misgivings influence her to stop practicing. After all, there aren't any studies (that I've found) about how older children teach themselves language, but she seems to be doing the same thing with Italian that she did with English when she was an infant. I say, encourage your little girl in this. If nothing else, it will probably improve her ear and her fluidity with language for the rest of her life.

b) The experimenting with sounds phase is dangerous, isn't it? Katherine loves to rhyme and it's gotten me into a lot of sticky situations. Innocent (to her) phrases like "There's a jigger on my..." or "There's a stick on my..." just never end well at our house. She's loud and clear in English, so there's no doubt that other people can understand her. But she has absolutely NO IDEA that she may be saying words that are offensive or dirty. She's just being silly and playing around with sound. I don't want to introduce her to the concept of offensive language at 4-years-old, but seriously what's a mom to do?

c) In Italy the word 'bimbo' translates into 'baby' or 'child', so all the Italian moms drive around with "Bimbo On Board" bumper stickers on their cars. The American men have a field day with this, as you an imagine.

lettyrburrage said...
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