New York City is a wonderful patchwork of cultures, ethnicities, languages, nationalities, races, and religions, Living there, you have a chance for adventures in meeting a wide range of people, every day, if you choose.
Four languages in the closet
One day, for instance, my boss asked me to help her in our storage room. Our printer and his assistant had delivered boxes of directories that they had printed for us, and there was a problem with the number of boxes delivered. So, we all stuffed ourselves into a storage room that was almost full of boxes.
My boss was from Denmark, so her first language was Danish. Our printer was Hasidic Jewish, so his first language was Yiddish. His assistant was Puerto Rican, so his first language was Spanish, and my first language is southern-accented English.
Although we communicated among ourselves in English, when we counted, we all reverted to our original languages. So, my Danish boss counted, en, to, tre. Our printer counted, איינער, צוויי, דרייַ (pronounced eyns, tsvey, dray). His assistant counted, uno, dos, tres, and I said, one, two three. (No, I did not add you-all.)
Two languages, one frog
My most memorable multilingual experience, however, occurred in the Reptile House of the Bronx Zoo, one Sunday afternoon. On Sunday afternoons, at parks and festivals, you will often see Puerto Rican families, with the children dressed exquisitely. The little boys wear suits and tiny neckties, while the little girls look like child brides or movie stars, but always age-appropriate.
You will inevitably hear the word ¡Mira!, which is Spanish for “Look!” Excited children repeat the word constantly, and, yes, you can hear the double exclamation points of Spanish in their voices.
As I came up to an exhibit presenting a particularly ugly frog, a little Puerto Rican girl in a burst of color was standing with her family, contemplating the misplaced amphibian (in the Reptile House). Suddenly, she said, “¡Mira! Frog.” One ugly frog, one cute little girl, two words, two languages…
My first response was to wonder why did she not say, “¡Mira! Rana,” in Spanish, or “Look! Frog,” in English. ¡Mira! is, of course, a word that she is very comfortable using with her family in their first language.
But, why did she say frog for the animal? I do not know, but this is my interpretation. I wonder if this was her first encounter with a frog when she was with her family. Although I have written about a close encounter with a coyote on the sidewalks of New York City (here), the only other experience I had with frogs in New York City was in a French restaurant.
Most likely, her experience with frogs had been at school, in books, in songs, in a terrarium, perhaps. So, confronted with a frog with her parents, she had only the word used at school, in the language of the school.
So, over thirty years later, “¡Mira! Frog” still haunts me.
In New York City, you can have daily multilingual, multicultural adventures if you choose. Bilingual children, no matter where they live, often do not have a choice. Some research suggests that by the extra exercise they give their brains, speaking two languages, they increase their intelligence. But, I suspect they similarly increase the stress that all children face, growing up.
Sometimes bilingual children have to translate for their parents. I once knew a couple who had different native languages. One of their children babbled confidently in both of them, while their other child did not speak either, for a long time, because she did not want to have to choose between the language of her mother and the language of her father.
So, bilingual children are amphibians of a sort, living in two different environments, and many times, like the frog in this story, not fitting into the environment in which they are placed.
For the Yiddish and Danish numbers, I used Google’s “Language Tools” and a fascinating page “Numbers in Over 5000 Languages.”
If you would like to learn more about Yiddish, a Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet, Peter Flom (index page) has a great series here.
If you studied Spanish in the United States, you may have learned only the formal command form, so you would recognize ¡Mire (Ud.)! while children speaking with their families will use the informal command ¡Mira (tú)! as did the little girl in this story.
You can find an index to all my unforgettable New York City stories, “My Experience of Unforgettable New York City,” here.