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.
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’).
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.”
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:
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?