Monday, 23 August 2010

'What happens to ships in winter?'

Mother’s English is entirely self-taught. Considering that, it is pretty amazing. However, whenever she leaves me a comment on the blog, I always catch her out.

‘How do you know it is me?’ She laughs, and I tell her that I can always tell it is her, from the way she structures her sentences. That, and the favouritism.

‘Stop it now!’ my friend said to her daughter, ‘Or you get in a whole lot of trouble!’

‘Wow,’ my mother commented ‘I like this expression! You don’t come across phrases like that in language studying books!’

‘I hope not’, my friend laughed.

Mother likes to know why.

‘Why do you say ‘’I will pop over?’’

‘Don’t know. You just do.’ I say.

Yes, but when do you say pop in? How do I know when to say pop over, or pop in? Or is it pop up? Or is it pop down? When do you say pop up and when pop down?

And why do you say ‘Are you around today?’ A round what? Around where?

I thought it was children who ask why all the time, but nope. It is Azeri mothers trying to perfect their English.

Once in a movie, I heard what I thought was one of the best phrases related to speaking a foreign language. An old man said to Keanu Reeves: ‘ Just because I talk with an accent doesn't mean I think with an accent. ”

Because, when your language is not perfect, it is hard to express yourself. It is hard to sound intelligent when your vocabulary is limited and you occasionally come up with wrong expressions or words.

A long time ago, while on holiday in North Wales, we were in the car heading somewhere along the seaside, when my mother suddenly asked my father in law about ships.

'Where do ships go in winter?' She asked.

Father in law was confused. ‘Hmm...’he said. ‘Eh?’

‘What do you mean where do they go?’

‘Well, don’t they get cold in winter?’

You can only imagine what my in-laws must have thought of this strange Azeri woman who thinks ships made of steel could get cold in winter and need looking after. Of course, she was not asking about the ships but the sheep in the fields.

My in-laws laughed very hard once I explained what she actually meant. It was not that funny, really. They were just very excited to realize that she was not mad. It was laughter of relief. ‘Oh, she is not crazy!’ They thought ‘she is just foreign’.


  1. This is so cute :) I admire your mom for getting out of her comfort zone, and you must be lucky to have this kind of close relationship with her.

  2. We Spanish speakers have that problem too: our vowels have always the same sound. No matter what letters precede or follow, an A will always sound A (as in Azeri).
    But what amazed me the most about this post is that lately I've been thinking a lot about those verbs followed by a preposition. For instance, a mom tells her son: "clean up!" My feeling is exactly that: how does she know she HAS to add the preposition? What's the difference with just saying "clean"?

  3. @Marianna: Yes, very lucky. I hope my daughter has the same relationship with me when she is grown up.

    @ Gabriela: The funny thing is, after living here for this long, I will say things, mostly right, sometimes wrong...but I still would not be able to explain properly. To me, it becomes natural and you almost feel what you mean. I also keep telling my mother to stop translating things literally from russian into english in a sentence, because, to me that is what makes you sound most foreign.
    As for clean up, it just rounds it up, doesn't it? Gives it a final, completed meaning. Don't just go and clean for ages, you lazy such and such but actually clean it all UP! Or eat it all up, or no desert! :)) These are my daily phrases as you can tell, eh.

  4. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes :-))) This post is hilarious! I was actually caught out on this same sheep vs ship situation a number of years ago, it was embaaaaarassing. Still laughing imagining your Mom's face expression when your in-laws wouldn't answer her question about the sheep.

  5. "Just because I talk with an accent doesn't mean I think with an accent. ” I refer to that phrase so often. Great post, Scary! I try to avoid using the word "sheet", I usually say "a piece of paper" instead:)

  6. My mother always says "one loses about 85% of their personality when they can't speak a language fluently". We’ve been living in the States for many years now, and she still doesnt speak English. Although her comprehension of the language has improved significantly.
    It upsets me that she gets very shy and almost embarrassed by the fact that she doesn't speak the official language of the country that's her home now. It’s difficult to pick up a language in your 60’s though… But at least we're lucky that NYC has many neighborhoods, including, as I call it, the Russian Brooklyn. There, my mother gets to keep her entire 100%.
    On the other hand, when she learned Azeri in the early 90’s (Russian no longer being favorable, and I can appreciate and understand why), she was losing her personality just as well pretending to be someone she wasn’t to please her Azeri in-laws, to communicate with “arvadki” (aka the gossiping bunch loitering on stoops and playgrounds. Scary Azeri had an excellent post about this indigenous layer of society in Azerbaijan) and otherwise try to fit in to that broken country.

    P.S. Harlem is not so scary, Scary! It does take some getting used to, and it’s probably wise to avoid certain streets at certain hours, but it's nothing like it used to be. Gentrification! And Giuliani of course did their job... I don’t miss living there, but every now and then I’ll take an uptown train for some cheap delicious street food :)

  7. This isn't just an international problem, it's also a regional problem across the UK. Try getting concensus on how to pronounce 'scone' or a clear definition of what a 'teacake' is. But, like Columbo, I'm happy for people to underestimate me, it gives me a secret upper hand.

  8. @Sevda: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. I am sure sheep vs ship is a very common mistake amongst us, foreign folk.

    @sofisticos: Have you seen, there was this joke going around about an Italiano in the US? It was quite funny actually. He kept getting in trouble because he wanted "fok" on his table and shit on his bed, and all sorts, it was going on and on...very good.

    @Anonymous: Oh, I love NY. I could soooo live there! If I were single right now and without a kid, I would choose NY as my home, definitely. Alternatively, if I was loaded, I would ensure I go there at least once a year. :)

  9. No,I have never heard of the joke. But it is predictable:) That is my problem, I almost never watch TV.

  10. Sheep vs. ship! I must say, for an Azeri learner of English, the distinction between these two vowels is the worst nightmare; or perhaps second to the realisation of 'th'. A friend of mine living in Baku once made a similar mistake, mispronouncing the word 'beach' in the same manner... And that was much more embarrassing.