The Trouble with Being an Immigrant

Learning a second language

“Yeah, Dad. I know, I know. But just don’t say anything in front of my friends.”

A TROUBLE WITH being an immigrant in a country where the language is your second is that your kids eventually are going to speak better that you in this new language. And they’ll probably grimace at your accent.

My accent in Spanish is soft, luckily for them.

I have a slight edge in the language department here in Argentina, where we live. My dad’s first language is Spanish. He’s Argentine. He’s an immigrant in the U.S. along with my mother, who is English. I heard Spanish growing up. So it wasn’t too hard to pick up when I moved to Argentina. My wife came with less. She’s English.

My three children are seven, five and two (“seven and a half,” the eldest reminds me). That means that so far only the eldest is starting to surpass me in Spanish. But most of the time we speak English together. We often turn heads. “Look, they’re speaking English,” passersby will say in the supermarket or walking down the street or on the beach. “That’s weird.” We slip into Spanish when Argentine friends are around or we’re ordering dinner out or something. And that’s when the mishaps and grimaces can surface. I know about this all too well from being the son of parents with “funny” accents and particular ways of using words. My dad would slip into Spanish at any opportunity in Los Angeles, where we grew up. With anybody and anywhere. “What’s he speaking?” our friends would ask. We’d try to brush it off, except when we went on trips to Baja California and then we were proud that Dad knew what was going on and he could run the show. We went surfing and he sorted out dinner to fill our need to eat “ya! (now!)” My mother, too, would draw attention. Friends would call us at home just to listen to her and snicker down the line when she said “hello” in her oh-so-funny British accent and then they’d gas themselves at words like aubergine and loo. And when she said, “I must spend a penny” for going to have a wee (or pee for the Americans).

No matter, us five children came out with the calm and slow speech of the Southern California beach lifestyle, even the two eldest girls who grew up in England.

But now in Argentina, it is my wife and I who are the immigrants with funny accents. Our Spanish is damn fine after 15 and 16 years in Argentina. But we still make mistakes in prepositions and pronunciation. Here and there I will drop in an English word when lost for the Spanish equivalent. Most get my drift. But forget about deep philosophical meanderings – and forget about the hardware store. I have trouble enough remembering the English for those plastic things that go into the wall so you can put a screw into them. So I resort to gestures. “I need a dozen of those things that you,” I ask before pretending to bang a nail with a hammer. The shop clerks generally are polite. They already know they’re dealing with a foreigner by my accent. “Clavos?” they’ll respond. “Yes, thanks.”

But the truth is that my three children will soon speak better than me. They’re learning Spanish as they grow up. It’s assimilation, it’s all-natural. Not like my challenges of learning from scratch (mostly) in my late 20s.

It shows.

The other day I told my dog off for taking the newspaper from the table and ripping it to shreds. My seven-and-half-year old was there with friends when I discovered the bitch’s transgression. “I’m going to kill her,” I said in Spanish. But not quite right. “Voy a matarlo.” That’s what I said, mistaking my female dog for a boy with the “lo.” My eldest daughter caught my error and without blinking an eye she said “la” to correct the phrase and save our girl dog from getting branded a boy. “Voy a matarLA,” she said to stress the correction.

It was then that I started to visualize the days ahead of corrections from the kids and the chuckles from their friends and the embarrassment for my kids.

Indeed, that very same day a friend of my children came up to me and said, “Why do you speak so funny?”

“Because I’m American.”

“Oh.”

And that was that, and she was off.

If it were so easy.

We later went to the McDonald’s drive-through to order takeaway for the kids for our four-hour drive back to Buenos Aires from Pinamar, where we have a beach house. I asked for three (tres) Happy Meals, por favor. The invisible voice behind the microphone repeated back to me my order for seis (six) meals. I said, “No, tres.” The voice repeated, “Seis?” I corrected the voice. “No, TRES!” The voice said, “OK,” and told me to proceed to the next window to pay. I arrived and he handed me the bill for “seis” Happy Meals. “I wanted tres not seis,” I said curtly, showing him three fingers. “Uno, dos, tres,” I counted out for the idiot. Not “seis.” He got the message and said, “Well, you should have said so in the first place.” Before I had a chance to jump out of the car and do something that could have made the most popular page on YouTube, my eldest daughter piped up from her booster seat in the back. “You have to say it like ‘ter-es’ and not ‘tray-ees’ or else it sounds like ‘say-ees.’”

I was dumbfounded by the correction from a pipsqueak. But it did the trick in calming my fury because it made sense. So I told the voice, a twenty-something know-nothing living in a narrow-minded village, “Thanks,” and I paid for the “ter-es” burgers. We drove off through a country where, yes, I speak funny. And I got to thinking that, well, this might just be payback for my chuckles, embarrassments and grimaces at the way my parents spoke when I was growing up in L.A. as the son of immigrants.

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