THE MOTHER TONGUE


entrance

Our expectations exceed the return in so many ways. For instance, when you step into my house, I expect you to speak English. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, but when I venture into YOUR house, I don’t speak your language either. This leads to confusion on both parts. Ours is still an English-speaking country, though I appreciate that this is hard to understand for many newcomers.

A teacher friend told me of a recent arrival from another country who was upset because her child was not being taught in their native language. I am reminded of an elderly Italian friend who came to this country at the age of 7 knowing no English, nor any English-speaking friends. She quickly learned the new language by listening and using sign language.

Some years ago I wanted to make a goose liver pate for a party, so I went to a likely looking market in Chinatown. As it turned out, no one spoke English and I spoke no Chinese, so I resorted to sign language. I pointed to the barbequed ducks hanging along a wall and flapped my elbows while loudly quacking like a duck. I wasn’t sure how to honk like a goose.

Two or three people came out of the kitchen, smiled and looked bewildered. It was the lunch hour, and soon someone came carrying trays of fried delicacies while smiling and pointing me to a plate and encouraging me to help myself. They all shook their heads when I offered to pay. I guess it was in return for the entertainment I had given them with my duck act. All of which shows that a smile can get you a free lunch. I did not get my goose liver from them however.

We live in an ethnically diversified community, and increasingly an diversified world.

For many years we hosted a backyard block party, inviting neighbors from up and down our street to come. Everyone brought a plate of food, sometimes a recipe from whatever country they had come from.

I learned a lesson on one occasion when I introduced two people from China to each other thinking they would have a common tie. They laughed and said they did not understand the language of the other. Later I discovered the same thing from members of my Tai Chi class, most of which had come from either China or Taiwan. It was a good learning experience for me. We need to understand one another in some way if only by language.

We are criticized for not welcoming newcomers to our society, but nothing is done to encourage them to adapt to our customs. New communities are being built with houses of many small rooms to accommodate families of several generations; children, working parents, and grandparents to care for the children. This is the norm in many places, tying into their comfort zone.

Lichen“Lichen” watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

This painting of intertwined elements illustrates our society of people from all over the world. A confused mass without any connection to one another.

There is more to being a good citizen than minding your own business. Learn our language and let us learn your customs if possible.

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

9 thoughts on “THE MOTHER TONGUE”

  1. I love the idea of a block party where everyone brings a dish from their native country. Of course, as an introvert, I probably wouldn’t go. 😉

    Enjoyed the visual of you quacking like a duck!

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  2. I loved a quote by one of our best cartoonist who use ducks in many of his cartoons. He said; we all should learn how to live in “the Kitchen of give and Take.”
    In our travels we always made an effort to speak the basic greetings and questions in the language of the country we visited.
    It was such an eye opener as well as opening many doors into the culture of the other.

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  3. Is that cartoonist Michael Leunig? I love his stuff. Yes, we always did the same; learn a bit before we go. After all, we study the map to learn which direction to take. It makes travel so much nicer, and after all that’s why we travel.

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  4. Herewith, my language tale. I took two years of high school French, and two years in college. When I finally hit Paris, my first stop was a restroom in the Gare du Nord. I didn’t realize I was supposed to tip the woman standing there with towels. My goodness! She began berating me, shrieking and doing that French hand flap, and I fled to Chartres. I couldn’t handle Parisian French, particularly under such circumstances, but I did fine in the country.

    In Liberia, I was the source of great amusement, since the language of the primary tribe I lived with, the Kpelle, is a tonal language. Vowel sounds can be high or low, or rising or falling. Half the time, I had no clue what I’d just said, but people did laugh. And, they appreciated my efforts. It would be good to have newcomers to this country making the same effort — and we could encourage it by not teaching school classes in dozens of languages.

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    1. I took 4 years of Latin—why I don’t remember. Maybe it was because at that time I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and thought the M.D. behind my name demanded Latin and bad handwriting. Maybe there were some good looking boys in the class.

      A grandson who took 8 years of Spanish went to Spain and lived with a Spanish family but when I asked him to translate something someone said, he told me “I don’t speak Spanish Grandma.” Dialect has a lot to do with it.
      I smiled thinking of you speaking to the people in Liberia. I do wish people who come here would make the effort.

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      1. Latin was pretty common, back in the day. We were required to have two years in high school. Strange educators thought we needed it, at minimum, to understand English. I wish now I’d paid more attention to Miss Wilcox, but I still can conjugate a verb or two.

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