Warning: This is not deep

I half-heartedly worry that someone is listening to me talk to my daughter and their English is being ruined.

I take my daughter to preschool every day. She is 4 and sometimes the trip to school starts with tears or resistance. One way to manage this with young children is to distract them. We’ve absolutely talked about this directly, worked on it directly, and have evaluated if there is a cause for concern. But, in the moment, distraction is your best friend.

My distraction weapon of choice is talking to her. I’ll narrate our journey and what we can see from the tram. I’ll ask questions, make funny noises, and make up rhyming “words” to get her join in. This is all standard parent stuff.

Because we live outside of the US in a non-English first country, I spice my language heavily with idioms. I want her exposed to them even if she doesn’t get them all. I want her to see how the language can be used fluidly for different effects, even if she can’t do them all herself yet or if the idioms themselves are dated. This is why I have half-joked that I worry I am ruining a non-native speaker’s English if they are listening to me on the tram.

Fast forward to yesterday morning. When we got on the tram, there were no seats. So I told my daughter to stand holding the pole and I stood so that she was leaning against me. She is safe and she can do this, but a sudden tram stop is not something she is necessarily on the look out for.

I was also low-key upset with the healthy young 20-somethings all sitting while a 4 year old stood. Suddenly, this gentleman, next to us, turns to me and says she can have his seat … in English.

He was about my age and had an accent that suggested he was a second language English speaker, but one with quite some skill in the language. I was very thankfully and got my daughter seated. I wondered if he was going to say something to all the young people who didn’t give up their seats but didn’t worry with it.

Instead, he says to me, “we’ve met before.” I am bad with names, but usually good with faces. I can’t can’t place this guy.

If you’ve never been around a lot of good second-language speakers before you’ve never experienced the “words don’t mean what you think they mean” phenomena before. By good second-language speakers, I mean people who are really quite good with the language. They have large vocabularies, speak it with ease, and rarely struggle to express themselves. They’re way better than me in Czech, or Polish, or German or … well, you get the point.

An example of this is the false-friend. That is the confusion that since two words in two different languages sound the same, they must have the same meaning. This is why Czech people say “reconstruction” when they mean “remodel.” The Czech’s use the word “rekonstrukce” when they talk about remodeling apartments. It isn’t a perfect match, and there is some nuance, but the false friendship is clear1.

As he kept talking it turned out he didn’t mean that we had actually met before. Which was good because I had no idea who this guy was. It turns out he has just been on the same tram as me before. Apparently, on at least one occasion, my stream of conversation with my daughter caught his ear. According to him my voice is distinctive, resonates, and so on. He put down his reading to listen to my amazing language.

This is the dude whose English I am ruining!

Sort of. It turns out he teaches English (and Czech - but mostly English) and was legitimately just listening to a native speaker not on guard talking. Sadly, he is not good at small talk so my attempts to keep a conversation going were mostly one-sided. We bid each other farewell a few stops later and life rolled on.

I am not really worried I am “ruining” his English, but I do wonder if he told his students about our chat though.

Since you made it this far, here is a bonus 4 year old quote:

Daughter and daddy discuss another child walking by in a spider man suit complete with a full hood mask.
Daddy: Well maybe he is Spider Man.
Daughter: No, he has shoes.

  1. Another cool one is jahoda in Czech and jagoda in Polish2. The Czech word means strawberry, the Polish one means blueberry. Hilarity with pies ensues. 

  2. And yes, many Poles and Czechs are really used to swapping ‘g’ for ‘h’ in words and then rolling on. People are funny like that.