A time I didn’t speak English

Nakhon Panom, circa 1983.

On the way to my brother’s wedding rehearsal, we took a road I have not traveled in years.  It is a pretty well-known route into the downtown area, but I rarely leave the house when I visit my parents.  Everything looked familiar yet strange all at once.  Before my family purchased the 25 acres that came to be known as the Shire, our first home in America was a run-down trailer on the busy side of town.  

My parents worked full-time, managing to get by knowing very limited English.  It was unbelievably difficult, but what choice did they have?  Brother was already old enough for primary school, although he was 2 years behind.  I spent the majority of my days in daycare.

As we passed the side street where the daycare still stands, Mom pointed in that direction and recalled [in Lao]:

Every morning, when I dropped her off, her eyes were brimming with tears as she tried to be brave.  She always said, You’re coming back, right?  I imagine she must have been terrified to be left with strangers she couldn’t understand. But in the afternoon, when I picked her up, she was cheerful and full of songs.  One name Jack, one name Jill…! She said it over and over, but I don’t think she knew what it meant.  I asked what words she learned today, and she would just sing songs.

This will be our 30th year in America, and it’s hard to imagine a time I didn’t speak English.  I learned most of the language through mimicking others.  My sponsors would take us to church and delight the congregation by getting me to repeat phrases, like a little parakeet.

What’s funny to me is how worried Mom was about us kids getting through school, not speaking English, even though children pick up language much more quickly than adults.  She tells a story about our time in the Philippines.  I played with some local children and before long, she overheard me speaking Tagalog.

Had I known any better at the time, I would have been the one worrying about my parents.  I imagine it was more difficult for them to adjust, but then they are resilient and adaptive folk.


8 thoughts on “A time I didn’t speak English”

  1. My mom worried about my brother when they first put him in school, and for good reason, too, because on the first day, he wandered away from the school and ran all the way home! English came to all my older siblings quickly; as you said, children learn much faster than adults. Sweet story about your school days.

    1. That’s great! I took French in college but the only time I really speak it is with my aunt, who lives in France. But I have lost a lot of vocabulary from lack of use. The only advice I have is to meet regularly with a French conversation group. Good luck! 🙂

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