How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Five awkward language moments

Photo by Visentico/Sento/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In a post earlier this week, I described what can best be called being haunted by the ESL ghost. I learned English in kindergarten and have no discernible accent, no trace of my native Spanish in my otherwise very American-sounding speech.

But growing up in a family of immigrant English learners, I picked up many of the mispronunciations that are common to those who learn English as a second language, and some of these dog me to this day.

In the post I shared a couple of awkward language moments, like times I've mispronounced colander as "co-LAN-der" and my tendency to call a skiing balaclava a "ba-CLA-va," which sounds a bit like one of my favorite pastries.

Since then, readers have responded by sharing some of their own ESL moments. Here are a few, edited slightly for typos:

Rogelio Gómez Hernández wrote:

Try confusing chicken and kitchen. Or wheel with will (as in testament).

Ah, two I've heard quite a bit in my family. English learners whose native language is Spanish or Tagalog tend to have a hard time with "ee" (as in "wheel"), pronouncing it like "i" as in "will."

Min Choi wrote that she has a hard time pronouncing, of all things, the word for my native nationality:

Cuban: cyoo baan and I say, coo baan. Couple things my friends, who born and raised here (more than couple for sure) correct me for a pronunciation. I definitely have had problems with R and L, and words with R and L combined (world, morley, trolley, and etc..)

Jacky Velasquez wrote:
So true! I remember one time in class I said the word "something," and it came out as "sumping." I laugh now, but then I was so embarrassed.

Fabiola, who blogs at Fabmexicana, wrote:
The answer is yes. Many...chamomile was one. I pronounced the cha cha cha in Spanish.

That's one my mother has never quite conquered. Perhaps it's why she, like others from Latin American chamomile-drinking societies, stick with the Spanish word, "manzanilla."

My NPR colleague Matt Thompson surprised me when he wrote that his parents, who came from English-speaking Guyana, also said "co-LAN-der:"

Mine aren’t quite Hall of Fame moments, and are bicultural rather than bilingual, but I come from a Guyanese family, and had my language policed quite a bit in grade school. I think both “ve-jeh-ta-ble” and “com-for-ta-ble” drew mockery for me also, and my parents definitely pronounce it “co-LAN-der.” (I’d always assumed these were Britishisms. But maybe it’s a Caribbean thing?)

What’s often called “yucca” in the US (“yuca” in Spanish) is known to us as “cassava.” It still sounds weird to hear the food we know as “plan-tin” called “plan-TAYN” by my friends.

"Ve-jeh-ta-ble?" Been there. At least "plan-tin" is slightly less confusing than the term I grew up with. For whatever reason, plantain-loving Cubans call plantains "platanos," a word also used for bananas. I know the difference, but I can't help referring to plantains in English as "bananas," which confuses just about everybody.

Have an ESL anecdote to share? Feel free to post it in the comments below.

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