My Daughter is Convinced She’s Multilingual

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“A little girl and her family are coming to stay with the neighbors,” my mother-in-law announced to Ava. “She’s from another country and doesn’t speak English.”

Ava has had one other experience with a non-English speaker. She was three at the time. His name was Alexander and he lived in the South of France. At first Ava spoke to him as if he were deaf and when that failed, she found success using the international language of mime.

“Where’s she from?” Ava asked.

“Sweden, I think.”

As it turns out, this little girl is from Denmark, not Sweden, which is a little like confusing Velveeta for Brie de Meaux, but more culturally insensitive. I know less about Denmark than I do about Sweden (for the longest time I thought “Sweden” was an abbreviation for “Switzerland”). I’m pretty sure the country produces finely-crafted chairs, highly functional if not always fashionable shoes and, I’m assuming, a damn good jelly-filled pastry.

Turns out, they also make really cute kids.

Sarah has long brown hair, a wide, easy smile and dimples that are so deep they seem tethered to her heart.

“Hi,” she greeted Ava, blushing.

“Hey, she speaks the same language I do!” my child said, visibly disappointed.

Sarah’s father explained to me that she can say “hello” and count to 10 in English. I guess at 5 years old that’s the minimum requirement to start a conversation because from that moment on it appeared as if our two little girls did in fact speak the same language. Except that they didn’t.

I’m not really surprised. See, Ava has this embarrassing habit of thinking she’s multilingual. Once while grocery shopping, she overheard another family speaking Spanish. So she began to speak Spanish, perhaps in hopes that this other family would hear her and be impressed. I do not know Spanish, but I’m pretty sure, “Shiska munna moy katatay,” is not it. Needless to say, the family was not impressed.

I knew it was just a matter of time before Ava tested out her Danish. The two girls had been playing in the other room for some time when Ava came to me whining that she wanted the crown Sarah was wearing. When I informed Ava that our guest was welcome to any of the 30 crowns she pleased, my daughter responded, “Fine. Then I’ll just ask her for it myself.”

Yeah, you do that.

Shushka mona ma fa,” Ava declared to Sarah in all seriousness.

And damn if that kid didn’t hand over the crown.

Later, Ava and Sarah reappeared to perform a song and dance for the parents. Sarah sang a song that her father translated as being “something about an impolite horse.” Then Ava broke into song, but it wasn’t in English. In fact, it sounded downright Danish.

Furshka munschka fah treh la!”

“Wow, that’s good!” Sarah’s father said.

It is? I hadn’t mentioned the crown situation, thinking it absurd that Ava could speak Danish. But if she could, I was positioned to put Ava’s hair into two braids, throw suspenders on her and rename her “Heidi.” (Oh, wrong country?)

“She’s actually speaking Danish?” I asked, though I admit it sounded more like a statement than a question.

Sarah’s father smiled at me and I felt the slightest (and probably deserving) sting of mockery.

“Not so much.”

Right. Okay. But the point is my little girl doesn’t let a little thing like language stand in the way of what is clearly a perfect friendship. Too often we use perceived differences as an excuse to keep ourselves isolated from others. Age, ethnicity, education, language—sure, these differences may pose difficulties. But sometimes these difficulties might be worth pushing past in order to see what else is there. For all intents and purposes, the two girls were separated at birth. They both love princesses, butterflies, singing and changing their clothes 3,000 times. With so many similarities, it makes sense that they could communicate without a shared language. Besides, Ava’s worldly. She has international tastes. She’s one hell of a mime.

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