Asian American · Expat

Do you speak broken English?

Despite the fact that I’m an expat in Asia and I hear broken English all around me, and struggle to communicate just as much as the next foreigner navigating these poorly maintained roads, I don’t speak broken English. And this isn’t because I’m an English teacher and I have my nose in the air, it’s simply because I was raised by an immigrant mother and my “intellectual” brain didn’t think for one minute that I needed to adapt or change my speech so she could understand me better.

In fact, my brother and I found my mom’s poor pronunciation often hilarious. Sometimes, we’d torture her, egging her to say the word again and again and again.

“Say ‘purple’ mom, say, ‘purple’ again!”

“Puppo.”

My brother and I would repeat the process, ending in fits of laughter. Until, of course, she got pissed at us for making fun of her.

Then there would be the other variety, in which I’d be neck-deep in confusion wondering what exactly my mom was asking me to get from the laundry room. I remember my teenage brain desperately trying to understand her, but each time she said the word, I’d be quagmired, confused with no hope of getting it. Naturally, the discussion escalated.

“What!?”

Sitsaw.

“You want WHAT?!”

Sitsaw. For cut, Lani! For cut!

“Oh, scissors! You want the fucking scissors! AHGGG!”

Don’t ask me again, why she didn’t teach us Thai. We struggled to communicate at times and looking back that just seems like a very family thing to do.

She did know the difference though between proper and broken English as she specifically told me not to speak pidgin. Most people in Hawaii speak pidgin, which is technically a creole language,  and one that was, interestingly, developed on sugarcane plantations as a way for Americans and immigrants to communicate. So Hawaiian pidgin was influenced by many languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Hawaiian, and is a lot of fun to speak, too.

But to my mom’s ears it was the sound of the ignorant and the under-educated. She forbade us to speak it. Although, last April when I returned to Hawaii after 5 years away, I was awestruck by how everyone spoke pidgin. It’s like my ears picked up everything, but when I lived there I guess I didn’t filter it out as any different or distinct. Surely though, pidgin was spoken just as much when I was growing up as it is today. I don’t know!

It wasn’t until I was out of the house that I realized how little my mom understood – and how much her English abilities had plateaued just like my Thai did when I was living in Thailand. Her broken English also fine-tuned my ears allowing me to decipher what many Asians are struggling to say when they speak English. It’s actually a pretty damn helpful skill to have. I mean, after all, broken English is arguably the most common language in the world.

So when I’m confronted with that “OMG. We are going to have to start signing in sign language” moment, I notice I slow down what I’m saying as naturally as possible to allow the listener to catch up and process what I’m saying.  I also do this in the classroom to a lesser degree and am very much at ease repeating myself. (Oh, the irony!) I almost never reach for broken English. And the only reason why I know this is because after noticing many folks around me doing it, I started to think about why I didn’t.

When we were living in Thailand, my b/f thought it would be funny (he watches WAY too many prank videos) if he pretended to talk to me like I was his countryside Thai girlfriend. You know, talk to me the way you hear so often, too often, foreign guys do with their local girl. Talking at them like they talk to them – or worst.

“Me want big burger now.”

I’d give my b/f the dirtiest looks and try not to laugh.

Then he’d throw in some Thai to go with his caveman speech, “Pom chob gin bur-ger.”

Did they notice? Did they roll their eyes and talk about how atrocious it was that he was talking to me like I was an idiot? It was too hard to tell, but I’d always tell him to quit it.

Big burger.
Big burger.

Do you speak broken English?

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59 thoughts on “Do you speak broken English?

  1. I love this post. This reminds me of my mama, who once asked our waiter at a seafood buffet restaurant for more “horse peepees” aka hush puppies. I do speak Thai, but I totally agree – it has made talking with non-native English speakers a lot easier in my book. I find I have more patience to decipher what they are saying. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you saw this post because you were one of the people I was thinking of! I knew you’d be able to relate!

      I remember my mom telling me that when she was first in the US how she asked the grocer for apple juice, but she said, apple like they do in Thai, appen and the grocer was sooo confused. She never found it 😦 But now she looks back and laughs at it.

      Her English is still rather rough. How’s your mom’s? I imagine much better?

      Like

  2. I have to speak broken English mixed with Chinese with my mother who understands only Chinese. I’ve lost a lot of my Chinese vocabulary.

    Maybe she understands everyday English word every 15 words in conversation. She too naturally slows down Chinese for all her adult children.

    I’m not certain it helps me understand other Chinese speaking people..when their dialect is different from ours.

    It’s actually rather sad…my father is no longer alive and he was bilingual. So the disconnect with us, is even greater now.

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    1. How interesting. I suppose you lost your Chinese simply because you were not using it anymore, right? I mean, once you left the house.

      And your father as this linguistic bridge. I’m so fascinated by your story. It must be terribly challenging to communicate. What about your other siblings? Do they struggle to talk to her, too?

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      1. It’s quite difficult when dialogue must get into complicated matters on estate planning/tax, probate, etc. I am all for mother tongue retention, because there are some serious communication problems in some families. Sure, when my mother dies we won’t understand every word that she tells us. Sure, it did probably depress my mother to be quite disconnected from her children.

        My language degradation started when I learned more English at school which I’ve written about in my blog.

        I know other CAnadian families where both parents don’t know any English and the children don’t know much Chinese. That’s even more complicated..

        Within a family and friends, it’s not worth getting all hung up about grammar. The stronger emphasis needs to be mutual understanding. That’s the highest priority plus finding and communicating good solutions to problems.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow I really related to this post, especially since I’m also half with a foreign mom who doesn’t speak English as a native language (she also didn’t teach us her native language, Vietnamese).

    I had MAJOR communication issues with her, so I feel you Lani! Sometimes, though, I felt like the barrier was more cultural and not only linguistic. I think she expected us as a family to do the asian thing where we’re supposed to read her mind, and when we didn’t she would get mad at us for not being considerate or thinking ten steps ahead. For example, I’d ask if she wanted water and she would say no–so I didn’t get her water. Later, she would yell at me for not getting her water. In Asia ‘no’ means ‘yes,’ so she was offended that I would not get her water even when she said no (I had sooooo many ‘aha’ moments after I moved to Asia that explained all of my mom’s funky behavior).

    But yes, broken English was never ok in our household either. I think that’s one reason my mom didn’t teach me Vietnamese–maybe she was paranoid or worried that teaching me another language would screw up my English, or perhaps she just wanted an All-American-Daughter. Hard to say.

    And mmm.. burger look tasty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. YES! I completely understand what you are saying. I’d say hs was the most difficult time for me and my mom b/c I really was feeling all-American and the cultural difference was just too great for me.

      And YES, YES, YES! I totally got her once I started to get into Thailand and the Thai language. I sooo many ‘ah ha’ moments, just like you mentioned. Because she pretty much translated her culture and worldview into English and raising kids in America. Why wouldn’t she?

      Mary!!! We are not alone!!!! 😛

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ruby, I liked your comment about doing “the asian thing where we’re supposed to read her mind.” My Chinese husband used to do that sometimes, and I wondered if it had something to do with a Chinese way of communicating.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Awesome post! I grew up with broken English, and I guess I have an ear for it, like you. I can usually figure out what people are trying to say, but I have to remind myself to slow down and give them a chance to catch up when I speak. Really good reminder to speak normally and slow down. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny. I only know I have an ear for broken English because of the instances when I’m with a person who can’t understand. I think this is why my listening skills are better than my speaking skills.

      Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The ending of this post is hilarious. Your boy has a good sense of humour there. “Talking at them like they talk to them” It is something that I despise, and no one should be treated that way as a second-class person who can’t communicate. We all can communicate, whether we speak English or broken English, though the latter might be hard on some of our ears. In a sense, it can be another language to our ears.

    I grew up with broken English all my life, and even spoke Singlish and Manglish when I lived in Singapore and Malaysia. Hokkien and Malay words were thrown into proper English sentences, and grammar went out of the window. You know, I think part of my life rubbed off on how I speak English today. There are times when I feel I can’t string a sentence together and when I do, I realise that it could be worded better in proper English convention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I notice that folks who speak many languages can have a unique accent. It’s quite charming, really.

      What do you speak at home? And what language do you think in?

      I told the b/f what you said. I think he enjoys hearing that others appreciate his weird and wacky sense of humor.

      Yeah, overhearing some conversations in Thinglish could be pretty damn painful. I just wanted to scream. Stop talking to them like that!

      Like

      1. I wonder if the accent changes with the language spoken. Maybe that goes for some people, and others not really.

        Funny you ask that, because my next blog post in a couple of weeks will be based around those two questions 😀 Those are rather complex questions!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. As a non native English speaker I’d say yes 🙂 (but never on purpose)
    But I wonder if it is the fact that you’ve been around broken English that makes you more sensitive to it or the bilingual approach? There is a lot of research of bilingual people are more focused on the contents, maybe that’s what happened to you as well growing up more aware of “different types” of English? I know I’ve been often in the company of native English speakers and when we’ve met people with very broken English (happens here in Europe; ) ) I’ve been the one to understand it better. And as a it is not my mother tongue either, I can express myself in a simple but correct way to support the communication, whereas I’ve found many English speakers struggle to realise what words and grammar constructions are often difficult for us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe. Oh, yes, it definitely happens with Europeans 😉 Living abroad – it’s fun to hear all the different languages, and how we use English as the common thread. It’s crazy sometimes, watching two different cultures speak English and the both can’t understand each other!

      I think a lot of native English speakers do struggle to speak in a way that is understood. Sometimes when I watch American TV I can’t understand so easily because they are talking sooo fast! And then I laugh when I’m with my teacher friends, talking to the locals with natural hand gestures and slowly, mindfully.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Surely I speak broken English. I don’t think that I Am even close to speaking fluent English as too many things come into play, especially my great German accent. Nah not as bad as from those comedy shows but people can figure out pretty quickly that I am from Germany.
    Despite my failure of mastering english completly I still managed to do my business studies in English and I feel more comfortable speaking English rather than German which might bealso due to my long time abroad

    Liked by 1 person

    1. English is the common language! How funny that you feel more comfortable with it than your native tongue. I suppose that happens. I’m assuming you speak with your wife in English?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Your mother couldn’t have prepped you better for your current job if she tried! Your students are lucky, indeed. So is your boyfriend, since you have not apparently thrown anything at him.

    Andy watched the pidgin video with me and laughed, especially over the Califrisko brahs. He says the pidgin is completely on, just like when he was growing up, although some areas have thicker accents.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I first watched the video I was rolling. I had no idea Andy Bumatai had his own YouTube channel. I grew up with him on TV and he’s such a Hawaii personality ❤

      That's awesome Andy watched. I'm sure he could relate and yes, some areas are definitely thicker (tiker) with the accent than others. OMG.

      And you are correct, I have not thrown anything at my b/f. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  9. That is a good question and come to think of it, I don’t think I ever speak broken English. I may simplify what I am saying in order to be understood [or speak Chinese if I am not at work], but I will always use the correct grammar.

    However, there have been a few very sad and embarrassing moments when my husband corrected my English. Yes, I hang my head in shame!! 😦 But then, I take full credit for his ability and tell him he has learned from the master [I have to take back my pride] because we speak English most of the time and I never filter out the idioms or slang when I talk to him. In all honesty though, his English was pretty good when we met.

    And as a side note, my Taiwanese MIL always makes me smile when she turns my husband’s two syllable English name into four.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I’ve had friends (English teachers) make funny faces at my poor grammar, but honestly, how we speak is not the same as how we write. And very occassionally I find myself mimicing how a student said something, but and then questioning in my head if that was correct – something quite short like a phrase. To make matters even worse is I have to teach British English which I am not qualified to do! Hahahahhaa. But actually, I’ve learned A LOT of British slang and terminology over the years.

      Like

  10. Hey Lani, I FIRST WANTED TO TELL YOU I BOUGHT YOUR BOOK AND IT IS AWESOME! I just got to the part where your student would not come out from under his desk…. When I get done, I will definitively write a review on Amazon! I am so glad you are continuing to write! In regards to this article, I always had English speaking parents, yet when Mom had mouth cancer and dad had a stroke, listening became a priority,it helps alot here in Hawaii with so many mixed cultures, to really be a good listener. Love you girl!
    I will keep you posted on your other site when I finish your book! Thank you for your efforts, as my daughter had trouble in the private school system, where she was labeled as a poster child, and I was no poster Mom! Thanks for not giving up when lirterally “shit” hit the fan on teaching!
    Heart to heart Robyn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. Thanks Robyn. I’m touched and pleased! I hope you continue to enjoy it.

      Yes, Hawaii might just produce good listeners 😛 but Hawaii also produces a lot of pidgin speakers, too!

      And don’t thank me yet. I wanted to give up sooo many times, but honestly, it always came back down to the kids. I kept going b/c of my students.

      It’s nice to see you back online, too. xxoo

      Like

  11. I’m pretty good at simplifying my English when helpful/necessary: one idea at a time, simple sentences, with a heavy dose of body language. Conversely if I want to speak English (say to a travel companion) and not be well understood by non-native speakers (taxi drivers, for example) I speak fast and use more slang and more complex words. Is there a name for that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm. Never thought about the opposite. I suppose I do that naturally since once the recognition we are not being understood, I just turn on regular speech. We might have to think of a name for this!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I do not speak broken English here, as it quite honestly drives me batty when others do it. I have the opposite problem actually, I tend to say things with too many words, and most people give me a confused look where I will start to try to speak Thai, and get even more confused looks. I then give up and start using hand signals hah.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How’s the English proficiency down South, by the way? Up North it felt pretty good at times, especially in Chiang Rai.

      Like

      1. It is almost impossible to use my Thai because so many people speak English here. I am heading to Bangkok this weekend and am looking forward to using my Thai a little 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post! I grew up in an entirely English-speaking household, without a second language (I picked that up on my own later). I did, however, have many friends whose parents came to the US from different countries and who communicated with me in broken English from a very young age. I assume that’s why I am good at communicating with people who speak English as a second language, because I can pick up on those cues. It’s such a great skill to have in this international world.

    I don’t speak in broken English because I’m sure people would never understand me if I did, and since it’s my first language I can’t really do it. I’m sure it can be seen as a funny prank, but I think if you speak broken English to someone who is doing their best to communicate in a foreign language, it could be seen as disrespectful, and I would never want to do that. Wouldn’t it be fun to speak to your b/f as if he were the one who spoke pidgin English? Slowly and deliberately ^.~

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OMG, that sounds like a great funny youtube idea. I might have to take you up on that idea! Surely someone has already done it! I’m cracking myself up just thinking about it. You’re brilliant!

      How interesting that you had many international friends growing up. That is indeed a blessing – exposure at any age, but let’s face it, a young age is golden for so many reasons!

      Thanks Kei 🙂

      Like

      1. I will watch that episode, and I will show it to my friends as well, so please let me know when you post it ^.~ I should probably check, but do you have a YouTube channel?

        I think that growing up with friends from many different countries shaped a lot of who I am today. My interest in travel, in foreign cultures, my ability to make friends from all over. I think everyone should try to visit a foreign country at least once!

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Unfortunately I only speak English. When I was in high school college prep classes, students were required to take two years of a language. If you can believe it I took 2 years of Latin and it doesn’t help me too much but it is a good root language to help me decipher words. I always wished I would have taken something else. At that time they did not allow us to take Spanish so the only other choices were German or French. Oh well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. I can’t believe you chose Latin. That just seems like a big challenge. It actually sounds like something my brother would do, being the big intellectual that he is 😛

      We had Japanese and Spanish offered at our high school. We might have had French, but that seems too fancy for Hawaii. Hahahhahaa. Consequently, I took Spanish…didn’t remember anything except the la cucaracha song 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      1. For some reason (back in the day) they thought taking Spanish was “cheating” (I think) since some people people spoke it in the community….and that was way before Spanish was considered a valid second language in the US. That came along much later. I could have used that Spanish class later in my working life! Times change!

        Like

  15. Puppo is as precious as it is funny. Will be a special way you remember her years from now. She didn’t teach you Thai for the reason she forbade Pidgin in the home while straining to keep up with your unbroken English. She had her standards, which I love about her. I never thought about how broken Eng is the lingua franca of the world. Cool insight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I can’t take credit for the broken English insight. I believe I linked the guy who I borrowed it from 😉

      And thanks for your insight. I will probably remember puppo (already have) along with other mom-isms for years and years to come. Standards, yup, she’s got them. ❤

      Like

  16. Hi Lani,

    I have been struggling with my English for the past year and I am a native English speaker! For the past two years I have tried to learn enough Thai to order food, ask Tuk Tuk drivers to take me where I wanted to go etc. In Chiang Mai it worked pretty well but since moving to Hua Hin I have been SO frustrated. Every time I speak Thai I am answered back in Thai broken English. It has become so exhausting to the point I unknowingly have been using Thai English. I really am tired of sounding like a toddler!

    It is the only way to communicate along with charades of course and has become so bad that when speaking to my daughter in law, who is an English Teacher in Japan, she said to me, “Use ALL of your words please!”

    We just returned from a much needed trip to two English speaking countries, Australia and New Zealand. It was like taking a refresher course! I am determined now to use all my words and hope it doesn’t turn into a THING!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 555. I remember when our friend Nali was working on her Thai, living with a Thai family and working with mainly Thai coworkers. One of her friends pointed out, “Have you noticed how Nali’s English is going?” And then I listened and it was becoming broken English! Thankfully, she snapped out of it, but boy, she was really getting the full emersion.

      It’s funny how your daughter had to point out your Thinglish! 😛 I’m surprised though to hear about Hua Hin, it seems so touristed, and close to BKK, so I figured there would be some decent English!

      Glad to hear you got your refesher course, hope you didn’t bring back the accent though. Keep fighting! Stay strong, Lin!

      Like

  17. Lani, I poked fun at my mum and dad’s mispronunciation of words too. My mum has always had problems with the letter V, so things like “van” always get pronounced “wan”, to this day. No matter how much I try! In the home my parents always spoke a mixture of Gujurati and English, intermingled in the sentences. They still do. I guess that’s a form of broken English. Sort of maybe!

    It’s funny you talk about pidgin here – I just finished reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and in the book there’s a Chinese character who speaks pidgin so as not to draw attention to himself and when he spoke in proper English people couldn’t understand him because it wasn’t how Chinese people spoke! Found it interesting.

    There’s a lot of broken English spoken here in Bahrain – from a mixture of different people – Filipinos, South Indians, Arabs – and they all speak it differently so you have to sort of learn to decipher them all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting. Thanks for taking the time to catch up here from all of your traveling. 😀 I’m sooo glad to hear I wasn’t the only one that teased their parents’ pronouncation! Looking back, it seems so mean!

      It’s definitely weird how our perception of how someone should sound can be in conflict with how they speak.

      Bahrain keeps sounding intriguing each time you mention it!

      Like

  18. In Vanuatu, where we lived for three years, the national language is Bislama, i.e. pidgin English. It’s actually a creole, one step beyond a pidgin, and it has evolved so far beyond English that English speakers can’t understand it. My husband and I took a Bislama night class, which was lots of fun.

    The language has a fascinating history. Vanuatu has more languages for fewer people than any other country on earth. During the US civil war, cotton and sugar production was interrupted, so Australia came to the rescue. They brought in lots of workers from the South Pacific. Some were hired; others were kidnapped. They called it blackbirding. As a means of control, they broke up groups of workers from the same village. The only way people could communicate was by using the broken English spoken by the overseers. And when the workers returned to Vanuatu, that’s what they spoke. Besides, during the colonial period, Vanuatu had become a condominium, ruled jointly by the French and English. So people spoke French, English, one of many village languages, and pidgin English. When Vanuatu gained independence, they had to choose one language, and the one they chose was pidgin English.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m looking forward to your book about your time on Vanutau. So fascinating. Their development of pidgin sounds almost similar to how the sugar plantation workers of Hawaii was created.

      And by the way, I left a review on Amazon for TTS! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much, Lani, for the review of Tiger Tail Soup. I really appreciate it.

        Like

  19. Your b/f’s humor reminds me of a prank we did back in high school with a friend of mine. He’s an American who’s super-fluent in Bisaya, the dialect of our region while I’m a fourth-generation Chinese immigrant with English as my first language. Eventually, that strange quirk where he could speak my local language better than me had to be taken advantage of.

    We headed to a popular shopping mall where I was dressed as a tourist in the tropics (the bandanna and all) and proceeded to confuse everyone. So we’d do things like me wondering aloud in English where the bathroom is and him asking around in the local language before translating the answer to me. Guess as teens, we just got irritated with the general assumption that I was the local and he wasn’t. That was our way of getting back at those biases lol.

    A walk down memory lane aside, I agree that I don’t speak broken English either. As someone who thinks of books as friends, I can’t bear to torture English when I know how to speak it so well. I don’t mind hearing others do it — I mean, you and I know very well that many are doing their best to speak it — but that’s a line I won’t cross.

    Thanks for sharing, Lani!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahhaa. Love it. And I really like your saying, “As someone who thinks of books as friends…” too cool and too sweet!

      Now I know a little more about you! Cheers ^^

      Like

  20. I found it quite comical when reading this section of your post … “And this isn’t because I’m an English teacher and I have my nose in the air, it’s simply because I was raised by an immigrant mother and my “intellectual” brain didn’t think for one minute that I needed to adapt or change my speech so she could understand me better”.

    So its not because you have nose in your air as a former English teacher but that your “immigrant” mother looked like an imbecile with her pronunciation causing you to make sure that you avoided speaking any broken English, all while highlighting that communication would be improved if you did change your speech.

    Its hard to deny that there is a negative stigma attached to broken English. People do not realize you can still speak broken English, and still get your point across, just as good or better than regular English, depending on your audience, and still come off just as intelligent. This has to do with slowing down your speech and accentuating the important part of the sentence or statement. Maybe to your everyday american, they might think you have an interesting slow style of speech but many people in asia who are capable of understanding foreigners would benefit and all that needs to happen is to have the person speaking slow down. Its something I’ve become very good at, after living in asia for many years, I’ve found this blog post interesting and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. I don’t think of my mother (or anyone) as an imbecile because her English is not very good. I wasn’t sure what you were trying to say there…

      I’m American and English is my first and only language, so naturally I speak it normally.

      Of course, after teaching English primarily in Asia since 2010, I have learned to slow down my speech. I’ve just never spoken ‘broken’ or pidgin English as a way to compensate someone else’s English abilities. This struck me as odd, as broken English is commonly spoken by foreigners as a way to ‘bridge the gap’ so I tried to look back at my past and think about why this is.

      Like

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