My mother’s relationship with the English language was complicated. She was in her early forties when she was first exposed to it, and after fifty years in America, she still confused “he” and “she.” She knew perfectly well that one is the masculine and the other the feminine pronoun, but when it came to saying them aloud, her brain refused to discriminate between the two. Likewise, she often said “chicken” when she meant “kitchen,” and vice-versa.
She never lost what linguists call the “prosthetic e“–the sound that Spanish speakers often use as a crutch in front of a word beginning with s plus a consonant, as in espanish, espinach, estreet, and so on. My daughters and I found some of her expressions irresistible, and to this day we often resurrect them with a giggle–“I will clean out my closet and give some clothes to the poors,” we say, or “Thanks God, the rain has stopped.”
A few years after her arrival in the U.S., my mother could understand most spoken English, but making herself understood by the majority of the population was a different matter. Aside from her accent, one trait that rendered her disconcerting to Americans of more restrained habits of speech was her way of studding her sentences with metaphors and flights of fancy which required her listener to be constantly on his toes. “The crepuscule last night was apocalyptic,” she would enthuse, not noticing the bewilderment in her listener’s eyes.
Along with the he/she, kitchen/chicken confusion and other errors, however, she deployed a vocabulary that, to English speakers, sounded surprisingly learned. “This soup is insipid,” she would announce; or, “these politicians are puerile and avaricious.” Crepuscule, insipid, puerile, avaricious–all words derived from Latin–are ordinary in Romance languages, and my mother naturally preferred them to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
By contrast, my father’s English progressed more quickly and easily than my mother’s. His pronunciation was better (no prosthetic e’s for him), which I ascribe to his musician’s ear. And because he was less florid in his expression, people found him easier to understand.
I am sorry to say that, at fourteen and fifteen, I had little patience with my mother’s difficulties. After all, I was having my own troubles with the language, having to function in a school that had never seen a foreign student before me. I found my mother’s laments about how hard English was self-indulgent. Why, I would mutter to myself, doesn’t she just get on with it? After all, nobody had forced her to come to the U.S….And I especially resented her constant demands that I translate for her. She wanted me to convey what she said exactly, and I was too young to explain to her that cultural differences rendered some of her expressions, if translated literally, incomprehensible.
The years, and the fact that my mother is no longer here to demand that I interpret her verbal pyrotechnics, have mellowed my attitude. Now that I have lost the ability to remember words, idioms, and spellings that engraved the English language into my teenage brain, I can empathize with her frustration.
To the end, her English contained certain errors and quirks. Many of these she couldn’t help, but there was one that she purposely retained as part of her mission to expand the world view of those around her. She refused to refer to citizens of the United States as Americans, but rather insisted on calling them North Americans. “These North Americans,” she would say, shaking her head, “they think that, from Alaska to Patagonia, they are the only ones who count. That is a little conceited, no?”