How to Play With Your Friend’s Child When You Don’t Speak the Same Language

  1. Bring a gift. I don’t know. Candy. A video game; how much do they cost these days? A stuffed animal – perhaps a small white lamb with an orange-and-green scarf around its neck and a four leaf clover stamped on its ear. ‘Cause lambs are symbols of Ireland, you know. Where daddy’s former host sister lives.
  2. Smile. Because gift + smile = buddy. That, or “papa’s pathetic loser friend.” Follow my lead: if the gift is said Irish lamb-cum-scarf, it’ll be the former.
  3. Nod. Laugh at what seem to be the appropriate moments while said child chatters away in their language. While marveling at what a remarkably adorable child your old friend and his wife have raised. While realizing that all of your friends are excellent parents. That your friends are amazing; role models; grown ups.
  4. Learn to say “yes,” “no,” and “what is this?”

Observe:

Child: Der shokolade *** *** *** ein zwei drei *** *** *** *** flug?

You: Ja.

Child: *** **** *** wo ist der *** *** ***?

You: Ja.

Child: (puzzled look)

You: (authoritative look)

Child: *** *** ***.

You: Was ist das? (pointing to an object)

Child: Das ist der huhn.

You: A chicken. Okay. Was ist das?

Child: Das ist der prinzessin.

You: It’s a princess? Nice. Was ist das?

Repeat until the child grows weary. Child feels powerful, you learn vocabulary, and inter-language communication has taken place. Restrain yourself from making a quick set of flashcards; in this instance, you are the student, not the ESL teacher. And this child is a very good child, not a potential adult-molester. You will remain in one piece.

In the morning before she goes to Kindergarten, she offers you the company of her teddy bear so you won’t be lonely while she and her mother are gone. While she’s explaining something to you, she drops her voice to a whisper – a secret. You are the perfect person to tell, because you have no clue what she’s saying. And, later, when it’s time to head back to Ireland, she waves over and over – Tschüss! Tschüss! Tschüss! – until you’re out of sight.

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4 Comments

  1. That is hilarious!

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  2. Simple things go such a long way – eh?

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  3. Love the post. I always wonder what they think of me, this grown woman who can’t speak properly! I was terrified the first time a Dutch child wanted to take me outside by herself! I was using all my powers of concentration and my entry-level Dutch but doing fine with this 6 year old until she pointed out a huge pile of something in the distance. “Mest! Mest!”, she kept repeating. I wasn’t getting it until, exasperated, she looked at me and exclaimed: “Paardenpoep!” Oh, HORSE POOP!… I’ll never forget how I learned the word “manure” in Dutch!

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    • So funny, Amy! I can just imagine what my friend’s daughter thought of me – I kept asking her what things were. But kids are great when you’re trying to get beyond the entry level of any language because they have a limited vocabulary and repeat the same things over and over. I learned more colloquial Japanese from my young students than I ever did in my two years puttering around Osaka. The downside is, of course, that I now habitually speak Japanese like an 8 year-old fecophiiac.

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