Dealing with cultural shibboleths, or so it ‘ap-pears’

My husband and I were coming home from church the other day and discussing groceries (yes, right now our lives revolve around such exciting topics as these! Those with young babies will understand … ).

pier “This was the first time I bought organic piers, and they haven’t been very good,” my husband said. “Very woody.”

I halted in mid-step and stared at him. But piers are usually meant to be wooden … and what in the world did this have to do with groceries … ?

Then it struck me. “Oh! You mean pears!” I said, giggling … pronouncing it “pehs” instead of “pee-ars.

Now it was my husband’s turn to stare. “But it’s pee-ars! Just like it’s spelled: ‘appears.’ ”

So then it was up to me to explain how, again, English words don’t exactly follow any sort of regular pattern. The upshot of it was my husband’s exaggeratedly exasperated sigh and the words: “I hate English.”

Has anything like that ever happened to you? I always used to find these linguistic “shibboleths” (which is actually a Hebrew word) fascinating and hilarious, and still do, except for the times when fall victim to them.

green-pear Like the time I was at a church in Kenya, trying to speak in Swahili. The crowd loved it and I had actually gotten along pretty well, when I suddenly became ambitious and slipped in a phrase that was met with silence. Then the English-Swahili translator slipped in and politely said another phrase that was similar, but had a slightly different word choice.

Everybody burst into laughter, while I wanted to drop through the floor!

Or the time when I tried speaking in my husband’s native tongue to one of his relatives, and she just laughed and laughed and laughed. Apparently my tonal inflections were way, way off!

What is it about human beings that we’re so quick to judge others based on external factors only?

We hear an accent and immediately start trying to plug that person into a place: New York, the South, California, etc.

We hear a mispronounced word and instantly know the one who spoke it is a “foreigner.” Like the time I heard this English idiom being used incorrectly. Our response reveals just as much about ourselves as it does about the foreigner.

When I’m on the other side and have just committed a cultural “shibboleth,” my first thought is to just stop trying. So I won’t ever be able to speak my husband’s language. So tonal inflections just aren’t my thing. Why make a fool of myself yet again?

The answer lies in people like my husband, who pick themselves up, dust themselves off and keep on going.

Right after he said, “I hate English,” he continued speaking in English for the next 45 minutes or so … because English happens to be the only language that we can both communicate in!

Yes, as humans we all make mistakes. “Shibboleth” mistakes are more glaring than others because everyone in a certain culture or subculture knows them.

But unlike the root story behind the word “shibboleth,” chances are we won’t get slaughtered if we commit them. Our pride and ego may be hurt, yes. People may laugh at us, yes.

But otherwise, we’ll never experience the joy of multicultural learning … and multicultural marriages! 😛

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About multiculturalmarriage

I'm glad to be part of a multicultural marriage! I grew up in the U.S. but am married to an African husband. This makes life challenging, creative and cool - all at the same time!
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