My baby cousin was born in 1998. At this time I was in the 4th grade, and very excited. Being so much younger than her siblings and closest cousins, she was the only one to not reap the advantage of only speaking Arabic until she went to school. We foiled our parent’s plans and taught her English well before her time. One such lesson came when we went to Wal-Mart together when she was about two years old. Greeting customers stood an elderly man in a blue vest handing out yellow stickers decorated with the Wal-Mart smiley face.
A mature 11, I did not want a sticker. My baby cousin, however, REALLY wanted a sticker. She tugged on our sleeves and expressed her aspirations to bestow the sticker upon her little hand. There was but one thing standing in her way: She couldn’t speak English.
Along with her older sister, I coached my little cousin in a huddle next to the corral of shopping carts. “You can do it!”, we assured her, “Repeat after me: I WANT A STICKER.”
Locking eyes with me, she recited deliberately, “I….want….sticker…”
“Very good! Again!” We had her repeat the phrase many times until she looked ready. “Alright, now walk over there and say exactly that.” Pattering over to the greeter, she confidently proclaimed, just as she’d practiced half a dozen times…. “I WANT STICKER”. I was so proud of my brave little cousin.
The man leaned down to her level, smiled and replied, “Whuudyoo saayy?” I saw her confidence deflate when she turned to us, unprepared to say another statement to this man, who apparently didn’t speak English either. “It’s okay, say it again” we instructed her from a safe distance. …… “I WANT STICKER!” She raised her voice…… Again, “Whuuudyoo saayy?” We nodded to signal her request again. Even louder, “I WANT STICKER!!!”………. No dice, “Whuuudyoo saayy?”
Someone had to intervene. “She wants a sticker!” My older cousin and I seemed to shout in unison.
“Oh! Here you go!”
This is how I feel trying to speak French in public. Learning a language informally as an adult can be tricky. I learn phrases as needed and practice saying them at strangers, who sometimes don’t quite understand me. Since most people do speak some English, I don’t usually require a translator’s supervision…usually.
Daily, I think about my little cousin learning how to ask the Wal-Mart greeter for a sticker. I not to get frustrated or scared when someone speaks French to me or worse, responds to me in French when I clearly don’t speak French; I just remember how adorable my little cousin was, grinning like a little fool with her yellow sticker.