Do your children speak English?

Posted: Mar 18, 2005 12:00 AM

The day is not far distant when I will not understand a word my children say. As it is, I'm moderately fluent in kid-speak, but losing ground all the time.

 My husband barely speaks the language at all and is often reduced to gaping at them over his morning coffee as they communicate in a patois that is one part instant messaging to two parts sheer invention.

 "Pwns" is a term of praise. "LOL" is, of course, laugh out loud. "OMG" is oh my gosh (well, Mom insists on that). "RFLMHD" translates to something like rolling on the floor laughing my head off, though the acronym is inexact.

 When they're not abbreviating, they're often intoning utterly goofy things with mock gravity. "Ben," David (11) will proclaim, "taters are grown in the great state of Missourah. Now I hope you've learned something from our little talk."

 Ben (9) will retort with a drill sergeant routine he seems to have picked up from watching the History Channel. He pokes his big brother in the chest, shouting: "Son, you think you can get by in this life by just standing around? Well? No, you can't. I'm talking to you! Straighten up, and fly right."

 Observing this, Bob will tilt his head and search my face for an explanation, by which time the boys are RFLMHD.

 The children are bilingual, of course. They speak their own language, in addition to more or less standard English. When exhorted to eat his broccoli before devouring a pizza, David shakes his head with pity and says, "Don't talk crazy, Dad." On another occasion, he responded to my maternal wisdom with, "Stop putting things into perspective."

 As for Ben, as he himself readily acknowledges, the hardest thing in the world is to stop talking. For Ben, it is the unnarrated life that is not worth living.

 Ever since the boys were exposed to Shakespeare, Elizabethan English will erupt from their mouths on a regular basis. I reach down to kiss David good morning, and what I thought was a warm and rumpled bundle of pajamas and messy hair announces, "Good Morrow, Mother," in perfectly clipped syllables. Ben will join in easily, asking, "Hast thou seen my backpack?" David's all-purpose cheer is "Huzzah!" As in: "Pot pies for dinner! Huzzah!"

 Jonathan, the oldest (13), cannot participate in the spoken gymnastics his brothers perform like verbal Harlem Globetrotters. Jon has autistic spectrum disorders that significantly hamper his ability to use and understand language. The whole family has learned to repeat things for him, since he doesn't always catch it the first time. (This is a bonus for Ben -- more talking!) We try to see things from his point of view.

 For Jon, living with four wisecracking relatives is like trying to go scuba diving without a tank. Still, Jon compensates with a visual acuity that is sometimes frightening. He can spot a caterpillar on a tree trunk at 50 paces. And he works harder at life every day than the rest of us combined.

 Though I cannot imagine where they get it, both David and Ben are quite opinionated. When their teachers would knit their brows at parent/teacher conferences and advise me that my sons have very strong views, I would simply nod sympathetically. Flying under the radar is not their style.

 When we visited New York over Christmas break, Ben and I surveyed Manhattan from atop the Empire State Building. "Where is the useless building?" he demanded. "What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled. "You know, the United Nations." And I fear that David may have alienated his social studies teacher by arguing that Chief Tecumseh certainly defied the stereotype of the peaceful American Indian unconcerned with land ownership.

 Still, they do have a decorous side (though you'd never know it by sharing a meal with them). When they are about to pounce on one another, they have been known to pause first and advise me: "Look away, Mom, a mother should not have to witness such violence among her children."