How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

What is your most awkward language moment?

It's been well documented by now that growing up bilingual can be good for you. But getting there? Survivors of an English-learner upbringing can attest that it's not always an easy road, and that the bumps along it - some amusing, some awkward - continue well into adulthood.

I began learning English in kindergarten, learning it at the same time my immigrant parents did. Because I was so young, I quickly mastered the American accent, as did my immigrant peers. But one of the pitfalls of growing up in a household where everyone is learning English is that along the way, you pick up many of the mispronunciations common to English learners.

These mispronunciations vary depending on who is learning the language. For Spanish and Tagalog speakers, for example, the double "ee" of "sheep" is often pronounced like the "i" in "ship," and so forth. I got over the obvious mistakes fairly quickly.

There are other mistakes, however, that I've learned about as an adult, when I've said something to a friend, a co-worker (or worse, an editor) and am met with a perplexed look. These blunders are more baffling to people because, unlike others who learned English later in life, I have no discernible accent. But as native as my spoken English may sound, the ESL ghost haunts me.

It's one thing when bilinguals code-switch, the term for jumping from one language to another, sometimes dropping in a first-language word when there is no substitute in English. It's another thing when you think you're puffing along merrily in perfect English - and someone smiles and points out that you've just pronounced the middle "e" in "vegetable."

I'm collecting anecdotes from readers of what we'll call, let's say, ESL moments.

They can be either from childhood or adulthood. I'll start with this example:

Years ago I was cooking pasta with my non-ESL beau and asked, as I prepared to drain the pasta, "Where do keep the co-LAN-der?" He stared at me and asked, "The what?" I replied, "You know, the co-LAN-der, that thing you use to drain the water." He started laughing at me. "You mean the colander?" I grew up hearing my mother saying "co-LAN-der," the closest approximation in English to the Spanish word for colander or strainer, "el colador."

And another one: When skiing I sometimes wear a balaclava, which covers part of the face. And while I know better, I often hear myself referring to it as a baklava. Why? This is how my parents, as well as my uncle and aunt, have referred to the things since they learned they existed. They say it like this: "ba-CLA-va." And so do I, at least until I catch myself.

Have an anecdote that merits a place in the ESL hall of fame? Feel free to share it in the comments below.

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