In the beginning, the baby cries. Whenever he wants to tell you something, crying is his way of doing it. It up to you to figure out what the hell he wants. Usually, it's fairly straightforward: I'm hungry, I have a bellyache, There's something cold and icky in my diaper, My big warm Mommy appendage has gone away again. I remember how thrilled I was the first time LE made a sound with his voice that wasn't crying.
About a month ago, he started pointing. Again, I was thrilled. Unlike crying, pointing is willful rather than instinctive, and it's LE's rudimentary little way of bringing his inside thoughts to the outside and sharing them with us. Usually, pointing means 'I want (to eat) that,' though when he points at his little friend, or at a cat, I think it means 'I like that' or 'I see that great thing and I want you to see it too.' It's fairly easy to figure out what he means. If I don't give him the thing he's pointing at and he cries, it meant 'I want that.' If I don't give him his friend or the cat, he seems okay about it.
Knowing what someone is saying is one thing, but knowing why they're saying it is altogether another. Even in our first language, knowing why someone is saying something relies on a host of outside knowledge, like our relationship to that person, the context, and our experience with language and communication. Here's one example: The doorbell rings and Jack shouts, 'There's someone at the door.' Mary answers, 'I'm in the shower.' At face value, it would appear Jack is unnecessarily relaying obvious information while Mary is making an irrelevant reply. But the context makes it obvious what's going on, which is that Jack can't be bothered to get up and is hoping Mary will deal with the caller. Mary knows she is being asked to answer the door but is letting Jack know she's way more indisposed, implying that he needs to get off his lazy butt and go to the door already. Another example is this: You've gotten all dressed up for dinner and you think you look pretty good. Then your mom says, 'Is that what you're wearing tonight?' and you get mad at your mom. You know this is not a simple information question. You know the real meaning is, 'Do you honestly think you're leaving the house like that? Go to your room right now and change.'
In the first example, even in a second language, Mary and Jack would probably both know what one was asking the other to do. In the second example, in either a first or second language, it's possible for misunderstandings to occur. It could be your mom really was just asking for a 'yes' or 'no'-- perhaps she just wanted to know if you were ready. Or perhaps in the next breath she was going to say, 'You look really nice,' but you were just being overly touchy and got mad at your mom for no reason.
I often think a lot of the misunderstandings that occur between me and the Turkish-speaking world are not so much because I didn't understand what was being said, but because I didn't understand why they said it. For example, the ubiquitous busybodies (see? I'm already casting it in a negative light). Whenever I take LE outside here, regardless of the weather, I always put something on his feet. This isn't because I'm concerned about his kidney health or because I think exposed feet are a sure-fire path to death. It's teyze-proofing. Teyze means 'aunt' in Turkish, but it's also a polite way to address or refer to any older woman. In my mind, a teyze I've never met is synonymous with busybody. And keeping LE's feet covered is one way of keeping the teyzes off of him, otherwise they'll be attacking us right and left, grasping his feet and going 'Ice cold! Ice cold!'
In America, there are indeed busybodies who tell mothers things they're doing wrong with their babies, but they're rare, and one is welcome to be rude to them because they started it by being rude first. While at home this past summer, we were out on a hot day. LE had bare feet, and a woman passing us in the parking lot said cheerfully, 'Doesn't he look comfy with his bare pigs out!' This would never happen in Turkey, or if it did, it would be a sarcastic comment implying that the baby was going to die soon from hypothermia of the feet. But in America, it meant something like 'Whew, it's hot! What cute baby toes!' A couple of weeks ago, it was in the 70s, and I didn't bother with LE's shoes when we went to the market. We bumped into a neighbor, and after the usual litany of 'Ay ay ay maşallah maşallah!' to LE, she asked me, 'Is he cold?' to which I replied, 'No.' She asked again if he was cold, and again I replied no. She asked a third time if he was cold, and a third time I replied that he wasn't. She gave me a strange look and was on her way.
So I expected poor BE to explain this to me. LE was in no obvious discomfort, and we were indoors on a warm day, so asking if he was cold was not a simple information question, nonetheless I could not understand her implication as easily and instantly as I did when the woman in America commented on his bare feet. I had my nose out of joint because when people ask me questions or make comments about the baby being cold, I use my American context and arrive at the conclusion that they're butting in and somehow implying that I'm a bad mother and that I don't care about the health and comfort of my son. On bad days, I include the further layer of implication that they think because I'm foreign, I'm a complete idiot, and they regard it as their personal mission in life to set me straight and I get mad and grumble to myself about why they hell my business is so freaking interesting to everyone else?
But this was a good day, and I tried hard to assume this woman wasn't indicting my mothering skills. Why then, did she ask me if LE was cold, and not once but three times? BE's answer was that it was because LE had bare feet. I wasn't satisfied, especially because of the strange look at the end. What, I wondered, was the correct answer to this question, because 'No' clearly wasn't it. BE said I should tell these people that LE took his socks off, or that he's used to having bare feet. No good, I answered. I've tried this before and ended up getting a lecture about how he'll get cold or sick. But if that woman wasn't telling me off for being a bad mother (and BE assured me she wasn't), then what? Was she just trying to make conversation? Did she take my thrice-repeated polite 'no' as a really rude way of putting her off and telling her I wasn't interested in talking to her? If that's the case, I feel kind of bad. I would have been more than happy to talk to her about anything under the sun other than the possible coldness of my son, and the dangers thereof.
BE didn't know, and just got mad at me for not having LE's shoes on and for overreacting about everyday events like teyzes getting into my business. So again there was some kind of communication breakdown that resulted in an argument that had nothing to do with any of the day's events. But that's more about being married than about linguistic issues.
Understanding the all the why's of everyday comments and questions in a foreign language and culture is probably something that will take me years to achieve, if not forever. It's so easy to get annoyed and I would probably do well to convince myself that the speaker's intention is nice. But I'm just too used to the world where I came from where people just don't do things like this, and the ones who do are nosy jerks. It took me years to learn all the cues and context and other unspoken aspects of communication in my native language, and now it's like I'm starting all over again, hardly better than LE with his pointing. I suppose a little patience with myself and others wouldn't hurt.
Easier said than done. I used to like the saying 'It takes a village to raise a child.' Now I just wish the village would go home and mind their own business.