On Ps and Qs.

It’s always a bit of a shock to find out that you have a linguistic tic.

During the years you spent teaching English as a foreign language it got to the point where you could predict the average language learning ability of any given group by how quickly they asked you what ‘splendid’ meant. Within the first few lessons and they would be quick on the uptake. The first month was more average. If you had been teaching them for half a year before anyone enquired, well, you would already know that they were heavy going. If they never asked, they were either beyond hope, or so good that they had figured it out and were using it fluently without needing to bother you.

And yet you were never once conscious of using the phrase, let alone so plentifully that nearly every student you have ever had has commented on it.

Likewise it was disconcerting when just before Christmas the Star suddenly started using polite phrases without any previous prompting from you. ‘Fank oo’, Mama’ he says earnestly when you fetch him some water. ‘No, fanks’ when you ask him his he wants some more apple, although he occasionally gets it wrong and uses it when you were actually asking a rhetorical question such as ‘I think it’s time for your bath now, don’t you?’. ‘Peeeeeees’ is particularly well targeted though; it is much in evidence when he wants something he thinks you will be reluctant to supply. Like TV.

But aside from the fact that he only does this in English, it’s his use of ‘sorry’ that confirms he has picked all this up from you. B finds the British habit of sprinkling ‘sorry’ around at every possible opportunity hypocritical. His insistence that it should only be used when one actually is sorry would account for the fact that he almost never says it. This often this gets him into trouble. Frequently not only with you.

Of course, the Russians are also less liberal when chucking around the ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’. You, on the other hand, are incapable of completing any transaction without them. People in Russia found it charming the first few weeks, but when you were still asking for your bread in the bakery with the equivalent of ‘oh, could you please, if it isn’t the most awful trouble, possibly see your way towards giving me a loaf of bread, if you would be so kind’ after six months, well, it was clearly getting a bit old.

The English over-excited intonation didn’t help either.

Anyway, the Star has the British ‘sorry’ down pat. ‘Sowy’ he said cheerfully,when you yelped as he swung one of your pictures energetically back and forth this evening. ‘Sowy.’

And then he did it again.

Interestingly, all these words suddenly entered his vocabulary in one morning. You find the idea that some neural pathway was suddenly formed to where he’d got these phrases stored all together in a sub-section of the part of the brain marked ‘social interaction, the lubrication of’ quite intriguing.

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7 comments

  1. I love these reminders that our darling toddlers’ brains are constantly storing up what they hear and they’ll spit it back at us when we least expect it! It’s interesting that your Star uses the niceties so comfortably in English but not Russian yet. Must indeed be cultural!

    1. Actually, it is so cultural that I have been inspired to update the post. Thanks for the prod!

      The Star is at the really interesting phase now where he really is starting to get the communication thing. It _is_ fun!

  2. :-) Reminds me of my EFL days – but my word was ‘brilliant’ and I was exactly the same in Italy with far too many grazie’s and per favore’s! And yes, turns of phrase will come back to haunt you from the mouths of babes…

  3. Gracie has been saying “ta’oo” for about a year now, but would rather not get something than use any variation of “please”. Except for “yay” in answer to the question, “Do you want *fill-in-the-blank*?” (at least, when the answer isn’t “No *fill-in-the-blank*!”

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