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!”
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.
“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.
Do you speak broken English?