Back in our twenties, my friend Regina and I found ourselves in a Scottish bar surrounded by, of all things, a bunch of drunken Scots. One of them–Murray–kept asking us the same question over and over, which, due to a combination of his accent and all of our various levels of inebriation, came out sounding to us like “Wanya ga furbyin’?” After asking him to repeat himself several times we could tell that he was starting to get irritated, and so, in desperation, we finally just said, “Sure. Ok.” At which point we found ourselves whisked into a cab with several of the drunkest Scots (including our questioner), and driven down a dark Scottish road to, presumably, a dank cellar filled with torture devices and piles of freshly cleaned American-girl bones. (What was it they said in An American Werewolf in London? “Stick to the road, stay clear of the bars”?). Luckily for us, the place we ended up at turned out to be nothing more sinister than another bar, filled with another set of drunken Scots. (When we saw the name of the place–The Far Bay Inn–Murray’s persistent question suddenly started to make sense).
This experience taught us a valuable lesson: never give an answer to a question which you don’t fully comprehend. It was too bad we had to wait until we were in our twenties to learn it, though, especially as that probably means that–at ages seven and eleven–it will be many a year before my children finally figure that one out for themselves.
In a way, I guess that, as parents, we’re partially to blame; after all, we do kind of start them down the road of misunderstanding when we try to teach them basic manners as infants. “What do you say?” we prompt them, at occasions as diverse as receiving a present, asking for a cookie, and stepping on their playmate’s gerbil. “What do you say?” And, like the poor traveler who only knows three phrases of the native language–and even then manage to confuse them–the poor toddler is left to guess at which answer (please, thank you, or sorry) will most quickly please his inquisitor. (Let’s see, I just squished this little mouse thing and everyone is glaring at me– ‘Thank you?’ No, that’s not it–‘Please?’ Oh crap, it must be ‘Sorry.’” ).
It would be one thing if this language confusion ended in toddler-hood; however, (as we saw from our Scottish encounter), it usually only gets worse. Case in point: “I forgot.” Somewhere along the line, children started confusing “I forgot” with “I got caught,” to the point where, eventually, they became interchangeable.
“Why didn’t you put you plate in the sink?”–“I forgot.”
“Why aren’t you wearing any underwear?”–“I forgot.”
“Why did you go into the bathroom, run the shower for twenty minutes, splash some water on your face and then come out pretending you had taken a shower?”–“I forgot.”
Again, just as in toddler-hood, when this phrase fails to have a suitably soothing effect, they begin to toss more and more phrases into the mix in a desperate attempt at appeasement, because now they are no longer simply the traveler with limited language skills, they are that same traveler after he has been stopped at the border with 27 live parrots stuffed down his pants. “I forgot” becomes “I didn’t know” becomes “It won’t happen again”–anything to stop the inquisition, because now they aren’t so much answering this particular question as trying to forestall any new ones. In fact, after awhile you might as well be asking them if they “wanya ga furbyin.” Although, at least with children, it is unlikely that you will ever get them to just say “yes.”