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Learning to laugh at language

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By Judith Ritschard

English is the language in my dreams at night — the one that comes most naturally — but I’ve lived in this country for thirty-six years and I still manage to mess up the English language.

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Mostly I have it down pat — or is it down pack? Hang tight while I go ask Google. Oh, yes; down pat. You see, English is tough. Learning any language is a big challenge. I know from personal experience that it doesn’t come without falling on ones linguistic face. Over the years I’ve learned to not take myself so seriously and laugh at my language bloopers — and there have been many!

Just the other day I went up to my coach and proudly said, “that workout was in my wheel circle!” Recently, my husband taught me the term “in my wheelhouse” so I was excited to try it out in real life. I thought I was saying I was within my expertise, or in my zone, but I knew when he looked at me I had said something incorrectly.

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Then another time many years ago when I first started dating my husband I told him to “take it with a grain of rice.” I know he wanted to laugh, but he smiled and said nicely, “grain of salt, you mean?”

D’oh! Those pesky idioms have always tripped me up.

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I hear new ones pop up every now and then and I’ll have to go as Google or go ask my Anglo-raised-in-Colorado husband what they mean. Even after learning the meaning I often get the words jumbled up in my head. Imagine my delight when our former President George W. Bush said, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Yesss! Even the presidents get those idioms wrong!

As a child at any given time there were four languages spoken in our home.  

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My father is Japanese by way of Brazil, so he brought into our home Japanese and Portuguese. My mother is from Mexico so she spoke in Spanish and together we all navigated our way through the complicated web of the English language.

My mom attended CMC classes at night after a long day of cleaning houses in order to improve her English. She never parted with her pocket dictionary. She’d whip that thing out in no time flat to search up a word she didn’t know, even if it meant holding up the entire line at a bank. There was so much beauty in the micro melting pot we had in our home.

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And there was laughter. Laughter got us through some of the more difficult times.  I saw how my parents were forced to put their language skills out there every day. Their small business depended on it.

My siblings and I would be in the background snickering as my mother left a message on her client’s answering machine, “would you like us to change the shits on your bed when we clean your house next time?” Sheets, mama, SHEETS! Or we’d hold our breath as she would recount a story to a neighbor about our recent “Bitch vacation.” Beach, mom, BEACH! My dad would mean to say “God bless you.” But, it came out sounding something more like, “God breast you.” Even after we corrected him he saw the twisted humor in his slip up and continued to say it his way. Oh, the awkward comical moments with immigrant parents are endless.

But you don’t have to be an immigrant to know learning a new language is hard stuff. Any language learner knows it’s a tough battle sometimes.

But I say, who cares? Go ahead and slip up. Be embarrassed for a minute and then take a bow. In the process you’ve learned something new and now you’re now a proud owner of a great story to share with your friends.

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