Being able to speak a language is subjective. I have many Japanese friends who speak beautiful English, but do not consider themselves to be English speakers. (This could just be Japanese humility though and not their true opinion： 本音 vs. 建前.
For example, I took a year of Latin and remember the basic sentence structure and vocabulary words. I do not, however, consider myself a Latin speaker. The same holds true for the other languages I have studied: Old English, Middle English, Spanish, American Sign Language, and Japanese Sign Language.
On the other hand, I have studied the Japanese language for years and still have many limitations, but have a proficiency level enough to work, live, and get in and out of trouble in the language. I use Japanese daily, occasionally dream in it, and while I still have much to learn, I do consider myself a Japanese speaker.
I was teaching a Mommy and Me English as a Second Language class to a lovely young mother and her two-year-old son. The lesson’s topic was body parts. Not wanting to use Japanese to explain the meaning, I would touch the location of the vocabulary word and then move such anatomy in a goofy way. This game was quite popular with the two-year-old, and I was feeling on fire as a teacher, for we were in that beautiful intersection of learning, engagement, and genuine joy.
I said, “Touch your chin,” and proceeded to place my finger on my mentum; however, Japanese-toddler logic mandated not the mentum as modeled, but what he very knew to be his chin. You see, “chin-chin” (ちんちん) is the Japanese kid word for penis.
He promptly grabbed his groin and proceeded to waggle it in the previously playful way. I started to correct/ apologize to the mom, but she was lost in a full guffaw, so I felt permission to laugh too.
It is a lesson that I will never forget, for it is true what the dear Anna Leonowens has said, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils, you’ll be taught.” (I highly recommend the 1956 version of the King and I. [♫ Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you…♪])
Now, as a mom of a toddler and further into my teaching English and learning Japanese journey, I appreciate this memory even more. I can see how my son is interpreting his world and the role that homophones play in inter-lingually and even within one language, as in the Homophone Horrors happening.
What are some inter-lingual homophone mishappenings you have encountered in your life?