Language Blunders Part 1

In an instant, my reputation as a mother shattered in the eyes of our ayi.

I’ve finally begun Mandarin lessons. This past week, I learned the word for juice. I sat at the kitchen table with my tutor and made a mental note that it sounded similar to the English word for juice.

Fast-forward one hour. I took the leftover apple cider out of the fridge to give to my kids and thought it might be fun for ayi to try some. I poured a small glass and offered it to her, saying in my slowly deliberate Mandarin, “This is apple juice,” which I hoped would be close enough to “cider” and she could figure it out from there.

And here begins our conversation, in which I became a terrible mother.

Note: This all happened in Mandarin, aside from my thoughts, and ayi’s Mandarin has been paraphrased for the reader’s understanding.

Ayi, pausing: “Jiu?”

My thoughts: “That sounds like what I just said, with better tone, and it’s close to juice. That must be it.”

Me: “Yes.”

Ayi: “I don’t drink that.”

My thoughts: “That’s so strange. Maybe she thinks it will mess up her digestion or something.”

I put her cider down and pour three small cups for my three children. As I warm it in the microwave, ayi turns from doing the dishes to watch me.

Ayi, very strongly: “They (the children) shouldn’t drink that.”

Me, reassuringly: “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

My thoughts, as ayi coldly turns back to the dishes: “What’s the deal? Maybe the Chinese don’t let their kids drink apple juice? There was that one fruit that she said they shouldn’t have too much of. Maybe it’s like that. Too much sugar? Bad for digestion?”

Me: “Just a little bit is okay for them.”

I give the cider to the kids, and then ayi turns to me again.

Ayi: “I can’t drink it because I have to drive my scooter to my other job.”

Me, horrified, as I realized the word she had used: “No, no, no! Not ‘JIU’!”

I quickly grab the bottle of juice out of the fridge: “This one!”

Ayi, after scrutinizing the label on the bottle: “Oh, ZHI!”

And then she smiled, realizing that I give apple juice to my little ones… not apple wine.

Welcome to the world of language, where a simple error can wreak havoc in real life conversations.

My husband and I shared a hearty laugh about this episode, partly because of ayi’s horror at my parenting and partly because of my embarrassment. As a child learning to speak, adults give us so much grace and patience. I think of one of my nephews who recently tried to say the lovely phrase, “Nana’s beach.” It came out sounding like something that I won’t write here. We laughed and enjoyed the moment, but we didn’t reprimand him or became angry because he accidentally blurted out something else. We expect that toddlers won’t get their words or pronunciations correct all the time, especially at first, and we listen carefully to understand what they try to say.

I wish that we adults would have the same grace for other adults and for ourselves when we learn a new language. I’m a big perfectionist. I don’t like to fail. I don’t like to be incorrect. I want to say something the right way the first time and every time after that. But it’s not possible.

While I desperately want Mandarin speakers to display patience toward my attempts to speak, the only person I can control is myself. So I hope to be patient toward students or friends I meet who are learning English, realizing that their trying means they actually care to communicate with me. And I want to give myself grace to know that I will fail linguistically but that I am free to try and to learn and to laugh at myself.

Oh, and ayi drank her cider and said it tasted delicious.

4 thoughts on “Language Blunders Part 1

  1. Haha I love your story and oh so true that we need to be patient with others that are learning English or even a new job. Currently I have been training several new nurses and having to remember that I was just like them only a few years ago with imperfections. Even today with several imperfections. Thank you for your stories and life glimpses. Love ya Dana

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  2. Reblogged this on Wordsummit and commented:
    Great story— it reminded me of a temporary look of horror that my Japanese host mother had flash across her face when we were talking one day when I was just starting out with Japanese. “Can you say that part again?”, she gently asked. When I repeated myself, she was visibly relieved and the conversation resumed.

    I had an inkling as to what had happened, but I never did figure out what the offending word was. At the time, it was obvious that asking her (there was a group of people at the table) what she thought I had said, would have made for an awkward moment.

    Anyway, I liked this blogger’s takeaway from the incident. We give toddlers the benefit of the doubt all the time, we should be kind to adult learners!

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  3. As someone who has lived in the Arab world for many years, I feel for you learning a new language. It is a humiliating experience as an adult….or maybe the better word is humbling. But it definitely makes me feel for foreign-language speakers in the US who come from their country where they are doctors, teachers, pharmacists…or just regular educated people. When they come to the US and can’t speak english well, people assume they are uneducated and wonder why they don’t speak the language if they live here! Yes, let’s be more patient with everyone these days. Learning a language is hard…and often times, there are a hundred other responsibilities people have to devote their time to. Thanks for the reminder and hang in there. It gets easier…and the blunders will give you entertaining blog posts!

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