Language Colors Our World, and God Isn’t Fluffy.

Being the firstborn of a mother who insisted I grow up bilingual in both English and Spanish, my childhood was colored with sometimes very bizarre ideas as I tried to make sense of the world around me.

Like assigning gender to inanimate objects. I was in kindergarten at the time, but I clearly remember telling one of my classmates that spoon was a girl and fork was a boy (duh), and then I grabbed my plastic utensils and made them waltz together at our lunch table.  My classmate probably thought I was off my rocker, but in my mind it made perfect sense.  La cuchara y el tenedor.  Having to use definite articles in Spanish programmed my brain to determine whether an object was a “boy” or “girl” and at mealtimes I would amuse myself by determining the gender of my food:  rice (boy), soup (girl), mangos (boys), apples (girls).

Later on, the combination of trying to grasp two languages and getting sent off to Catholic school resulted in one of the biggest shocks of my childhood. The shocker? – God wasn’t a fluffy brown bear.

GOD.

Why did I think God was a fluffy brown bear?

Because one of my bedtime routines as a very young child consisted of my mom asking me if I had recited my nighttime prayers to ‘The Osito’ (in English, ‘the little bear’).

At the nunnery school, while studying the violent Bible stories found in the Old Testament, I realized, in Richard Dawkin’s words, that God (well, Old Testament God) was “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a… capriciously malevolent bully.”  Naturally, my seven-year-old vocabulary couldn’t express God’s personality as such, but Dawkin’s words describe how I felt at the moment of The Grand Theological Trauma.

So the day I found out God was scary and not fluffy, I sat on my bed and waited for my mom to ask if I had said my prayers. I would tell her what I had learned at school, and she would reassure me that it was all a mistake and that God, indeed, was a fat bear lolling around in the clouds. So I waited, and waited, and…

Mom: “Michelle, have you prayed to ‘Diosito’?”

Me:  [Suddenly realizing The Osito’s name sounded funny.] “What.”

Mom:  “Have…”

Me:  “Te oí. But, what? There’s a D in Osito? Since when is there a D in Osito???”

Mom:  [Used to my recurring nonsensical freak-outs.]  “Michelle…what are you talking about?”

Me: “God-isn’t-a-bear?!?!?!

Due to similar phonetics, my Spanglish brain had always heard “The Osito,” when in fact my mom had always said, “Diosito.” Which means Little God in an affectionate way.

 

But you have to understand, in less than 10 hours God had gone from this:

 

To this:

 

And finally, THIS:

The fluffiness that was supposed to watch over me was now an angry man chillin’ in the clouds, ready to either strike me dead or turn me into a salt statue if I ate the wrong apple, couldn’t part the sea, didn’t build an ark, didn’t want to murder my long-awaited firstborn child in his name, or if I didn’t follow the gajillion commandments he had magically set on stone.

(I know there are ten, but when you’re a child and have to memorize them all word for word in Thou-shalt-pretend-to-be-Old-English style, it can be intimidating.)

I began to feel that if I did anything wrong (even thinking bad thoughts), the clouds would part and I would be heavily punished by The Inescapable Almighty. I lived in fear of agony and salt statues for a good chunk of time (two weeks) before I eventually realized that the occasional biting of my sister and throwing of tantrums would not result in immediate death.

Upon realizing this, I of course went back to being the hyperactive, screaming banshee of a child I had always been – though I like to think that my frazzled mother secretly loved me even more for my resilience.

What have your own language experiences been?

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37 thoughts on “Language Colors Our World, and God Isn’t Fluffy.

  1. I loved this post :D It makes my heart best with affinity (in a NON-lesbo-psycho-stalker way). Here in South Africa, we grew up learning English and Afrikaans (which is very similar to Dutch). As a Muslim, I went to Madressa and learnt Arabic and was quite fluent at a young age. Problem was that as I grew, I had no one to talk to (we have 11 official languages in SA and Arabic isn’t one of them). So I forgot everything bar a few words- but I can still read and write in Arabic.

    At the moment, I’m learning Spanish, French, Italian and Arabic. It’s a bit moronic to learn all at once but I’m already very familiar with Spanish and Arabic (and Italian to an extent) my only real challenge is French… so I figured why not. And I pick up languages really fast. I had a Brazilian friend in high school and she couldn’t speak ANY English when she arrived so she’d converse in Portuguese and I’d respond in English and before I knew it I was speaking Portuguese too. It must be genetic because my Grandfather was fluent in 9 languages and could communicate in a few more.

    Anyways re: your sentiments around God. I was just telling someone the other day that we’ve been indoctrinated so much that it’s difficult to tell the truth apart from the falsehood. At Madressa (which is like Sunday School but every day after school) we were taught to love all the Prophets (Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Abraham etc.) but we were also taught to fear God too… and it was only after many years away from that school of thought and after reading up on others that I came to realise that there was no reason that we couldn’t worship out of love. I understand and respect the power of The Almighty and I fear his wrath (over legitimate stuff) but I came to understand that The Almighty doesn’t “hate”… he loves all of us and theres no reason we can’t return that love.

    Oh look I wrote a book. I talk too much :)

      • Azra, I love your intercultural-ness! I’m quite envious! :)
        It was incredibly nice to read that they teach to love all Prophets in Madressa. In short, they were teaching tolerance and to love what is different instead of hating it. Religion as an institution is a very tricky thing. If we just have a strong sense of spirituality towards being the best person one can be, working hard towards positive dreams, and appreciating the people that love us the most, then I think we’re alright without the religion. Nonetheless, it’s a very touchy subject.

        • It’s true that its a very touchy subject. In Islam, I blame culture for that. Its long and complicated but the cliffsnotes version is that people have culturalised Islam to such an extent that they have made rules where none exist and have conveniently discarded those rules that don’t suit them (In much the same way the Catholic Church tried to control Europe at one stage in history)…

          For instance, it is a law in Islam (AN ACTUAL LEGITIMATE LAW) to respect EVERY religion and not to judge anyone… but people have attached their own prejudices to that and through dogmatic indoctrination they’ve carried their biased idelogies through generations. And the result is that we have a whole lot of fuckwits who do things in the name of Islam when it has NO part of Islam at all.

          By the way… we too believe in Jesus (we call him Isa) and in all the other prophets too. They’re all in the Qur’an. We believe he will descend again and bring order to the world etc. etc. etc.

          Hope you have a great weekend! ;)

          • “…they have made rules where none exist and have conveniently discarded those rules that don’t suit them…”
            As I suppose is the case with most “dominant” religions.
            I need to hop on a flight to SA (or vice versa) so we can hang out, have coffee, and talk our little heads off for a week!
            Have a good weekend as well. :)

  2. I love your post Michelle, really enjoyed reading it! Entertaining and informative, I just love the descriptions of your early-age language discoveries. Indeed Language covers our world! I will pass this post on to a friend who I just recently met (on Twitter that is). She is all about languages AND traveling, I’m sure she will enjoy it too.
    Keep on writing great stories!
    Emiel

    • Thank you Emiel, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. :) I will eventually post more about my past, present, and future travels, but I suppose I will continue writing outside of the lines whenever I’m inspired.
      And thanks for passing this along! I appreciate it! :)

  3. Hi random person I’ve never met! It was great to read such a humorous description both of multilingual confusion and the odd misinterpretations of childhood. I was 11 before I realized that the announcers on the radio weren’t saying a special radio word “broctubi” but that in fact they were saying “brought to you by.”

    So I wanted to say ‘tops writing!” and to thank you for your kind comments on fivewordmonologues. It’s so nice to know that someone read something one wrote, let alone that it gave them some good feeling.

  4. For a long time I used to think that there is a “French benefit” instead of ” fringe benefit” :-)
    Your story about a bear is great!

    “Gift” in German means poison, for example, so you are totally right, languages do color our world ;-)

  5. I grew up in multilingual environment :) When I was a child Lithuania (my native country) was occupied by Russia and while we were in Soviet Union power all cartoons and movies were in Russian. I didn’t really need to study hard to learn the language. And then in my teens, when I was 12 I started studying English. It was confusing in the beginning. I spent some time in Italy and I was called ‘Stupenda’ (meaning wonderful). I though he was very rude as I misheard the word as ‘Stupida’ (stupid in English)

    I absolutely loved the story :) that’s really cute to imagine God as a bear :)

  6. Hi Michi,
    Just found your blog today via Hey from Japan. That ‘osito’ story was too funny! I am also bilingual married to a Spaniard but living in USA. Love your blog.

  7. Enjoyed reading about your childhood impressions as I’m trying to teach my daughter two languages at once (Russian and English). Now she is two years 10 months old and she knows lots of words from both languages but hasn’t begun to speak in sentences yet.

    • I wouldn’t worry too much. Sometimes bilingual children take a bit longer to speak because they’re learning a vast amount of vocabulary in two different tongues. Before you know it, she’ll be blabbing so much you’ll fondly begin to remember those “quieter” days. :)

  8. I hope she’ll begin blabbing in two languages. That is my biggest concern now. I’ve heard many children can understand two languages but choose to speak in one. :)

    • All children are different, but I pretty much blabbed in both languages and could not be stopped. I loved using my words, and my dad called me “the parrot.” My younger siblings also grew up bilingual, but as much as my mom insisted that they respond in Spanish when spoken to in Spanish, they were too embarrassed or ashamed to speak the language because of the negative connotations of being a minority, and continued to respond in English which led to their having a low level of the Spanish language.
      In another angle, one of my previous roommates is a HUGE talker (she’s a theater and choir gal) but grew up only speaking English. She and her mom once told me that my roommate refused to speak until she was almost three and her mom thought she might have an impediment. But one day, the floodgates opened and she hasn’t been able to keep quiet since.
      I think that if you constantly speak to your daughter in Russian, she’ll be very bilingual. English she’ll easily pick up at school and with her friends. :)

  9. Only the other way round. We are from Russia and I’m trying to speak as much English as possible to her. :) Everything was ok when she was small but now she considers herself big and chooses cartoons for herself. Almost always she chooses Russian cartoons and though I feel pity I don’t want to impose my will. I’m really at a loss about this matter. What would you do?

    • Olga, it’s pretty normal that a child rejects the “foreign” language because he or she is ashamed, even though it sounds stupid for us. It was the same for my sister and I (we were taught German and French but went to school in France, and apparently we both refused to speak German when we were in kindergarden. Reading really isn’t that important, we both read mainly in French and we’re both fluent in both languages now!

    • I very much agree with Len (thank you!).
      I didn’t realize it was the other way around. But as with anything, as long as your daughter is exposed to English (or any other language) with consistency, she will be fluent. And being fluent in two languages opens the doors (and increases your brain capacity) to even more languages! (Take Len for example!)
      Your daughter is also very young – children are like sponges, and as an English teacher it’s amazing to see how quickly they absorb everything you teach them on a daily basis. :)

  10. Interesting story. Multilingual? What a dream! I born in Italy from german father and italian mother. Before going to school my parents were worried because I spoke better german than italian and living in Italy it was not good. Going to school I forgot all my german. Years later (and unfortunately many years ago) I start to work in chemistry field and knowledge of german language was a must. I went to an school 2 evening a week to learn it. I had to learn english as well but this was easier becaus I related it to the pop/rock/rythmandblues music I loved. For a certain part of my life I could understand and speak quite well both german and english. Than I arrived to a big multinational company where the rule for all international communications was to speak english and I start to use it even when speaking to my german collegues. End result I lost (again!) most of my german! A couple of years ago I found some paper I wrote before in german and I have not been able to read them! Ok, with some imagination I could. So I decided to learn german again and now that I have more time (just retired) I hope one day to manage again to speak in reasonably well !
    robert
    PS: when young I had a french girlfriend for a few months, so my french is…

  11. Marvelous! This reminded me of time spent with a great-cousin in Switzerland years ago when her son was two and the expected adventures of being that age were colliding with his realization that though he grew up surrounded by three official languages and understood them all equally, others did *not* seem to understand his delightful blending of the three. This resulted in numerous meltdowns, blasts of energy requiring handsprings off the couch to relieve them, and the occasional biting of persons in his vicinity. It was both comic and traumatic. But I’ve heard he got through it all eventually!

    I am deeply envious of those raised bi- or multi-lingually. I’m not sure I’ve even got the hang of the English language, messy as it is. But I find it wonderfully satisfying to see what results when I even attempt to make use of the few words and phrases I know in other languages, and haven’t entirely given up hope, at this ancient age, of learning at least one other properly, if not, perhaps, so very fluently.

    And of course it’s clear that we humans use language divisively as much as communicatively, hearing what we want to hear, believing what we want to believe, and saying what we think others should believe. As Azra has wisely noted above, Islam teaches love and respect for others just as much as Christianity does, but neither is exactly perfect in practicing it! I took a religions-of-the-world survey sort of class many years ago and was struck by how nearly interchangeable the teachings of *all* the “mainline” religions were (though the names and terms might differ) and have wondered ever since how practitioners of all of them have managed to tweak them all so far as to find reasons to condemn and even hate each other based on them!

    Thanks for another fine, provocative and entertaining post.

  12. Just came across your blog, love it! And this is absolutely hilarious, I study linguistics and this is fascinating to me! Most bilingual children end up getting things straightened out in the end, but from a child’s point of view it must have been so traumatizing! I’m following :)

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