Tag Archives: bilingual


 MR is a student at Carleton University but currently lives in Texas with her family. Her parents are both Mexican immigrants and she was born in Canada, but they have all lived in the United States for over a decade. She is a linguist who speaks multiple languages. 

TEXT: ‘cafecito’

MR- It’s used when, like, you’re done with a meal and now it’s time for talking at the table. Maybe you have a cookie or like a little dessert or like a little cup of coffee or tea and you just table talk. You have cafecito to have table talk. Cafecito is commonly used by Spanish-speaking people because it’s just a diminutive of cafe (coffee), but me and my family and friends use it a lot more frequently and more versatile. My non-Spanish speaking friends know what it means when I ask for them to come over for a quick cafecito. 

ANALYSIS: The progression of cafecito as a phrase represents the values of MR and her bilingual family. Dinner time is an important time for many families, eating all together and not leaving the table until everyone is done. Sharing time together around a meal is crucial to MR’s lifestyle, and the evolution of the use of the word cafecito captures that. While the direct translation of the word just means coffee, when asking for some cafecito there is a desire for communal gathering and conversation, not just a drink. In a world where having a screen in front of your face throughout the whole day is becoming ever more pertinent, it’s important to have moments of true connection and honest conversations, without any added social pressures. Having cafecito after a meal allows for a calm and open area for people to commune and relax, with just good company and treats to keep one occupied. Using the word Cafecito in this way is also very reflexive of the bilingual experience. In many multilingual families, words and phrases quickly take on new or double meanings. The abundance of communication routes does not always mean that there are words that can capture what one means, and often there is a word in one language that better captures the feeling you are trying to convey in another. Cafecito evolved into a multilingual term, having various meanings depending on the sentence in which it is included and able to be used in multiple languages. The varying uses of the word Cafecito all represent the importance of community and communication in our modern world and the ways that language can evolve to fit our needs.

Cheese & Rice

AP is a 20-year-old student from Austin, Texas. Her mom is a Mexican immigrant and her father is white, but she primarily has lived with her mother and many older siblings.

 ‘Cheese and rice’

AP- Whenever I was a kid my mom’s English wasn’t as good as it is now because she was born in Mexico, so she couldn’t pronounce Jesus Christ. So, instead she would say Cheese and Rice. As a kid, I obviously thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and I have continued to use it as an exclamation ever since.

ANALYSIS: Many sayings and phrases stem from a joke or memory, and it is spread far and wide until the origins are unfamiliar. Most people on the planet probably have jokes about words that their friends or family mispronounced. AP’s mom being an immigrant raising multiple children on a single income was stressful, and there were often probably many miscommunications and issues conversing. While this can be irritating, the best way to change the mood is by lighting it up with a laugh. Cheese and rice was a way for AP to make these communication issues lighter. All kinds of people struggle with miscommunication and mispronunciations, and from those moments hundreds of inside jokes and sayings were created. While using cheese and rice as an exclamation may not make sense to someone unfamiliar with AP’s story, it does not mean that they wouldn’t find the same humor in it or continue to use it on their own. Even without the context, exclaiming ‘Cheese and rice’ when you are upset over something is inherently funny and would help break the tension. Despite never having heard the original context, the people around AP began using cheese and rice as well, because they heard AP use it and thought it was funny or intriguing. Before one knows it, they may be exclaiming cheese and rice without ever knowing what it means or where it came from, because its simple nature makes it a universal comedic button. Simple jokes that come from lighthearted fun can permeate all levels of time and space.

French Schoolyard Catch Riddle

The catch: being asked to spell J,T, and P, in a French accent

Context: The informant is currently studying at USC, but as a child, she attended a French/English bilingual school. She explained that as a child, other kids would tell her to spell out “J, T, and P” in a French accent. Doing so would result in the informant saying “jé, té, pé,” after which the kids would laugh, as they had tricked her into saying something that sounded like “j’ai pété”, which means “I farted” in French.

Analysis: This is very similar to a typical elementary school catch of asking someone to spell “icup” (resulting in saying something that sounded like “I see you pee”). In Jay Mechling’s chapter on Children’s Folklore from Elliott Oring’s Folk Groups and Folklore Genres, Mechling notes how the child’s body features greatly in children’s folklore, specifically bodily functions. This is an example of humor based on the taboo of bodily excretion; the joke is played on an outgroup and results in them saying that they have done something that other children find embarrassing or gross.

Joke/Riddle:How do you say pollo in English? And how do you say repollo in English?

Context: D also introduced me to this Spanish joke that they had learned from her childhood friends. D explained that “pollo” is chicken in Spanish, and “repollo” is cabbage in Spanish, so the joke is that people would answer chicken for the first question, and then rechicken for the second question. They told me that the joke would only make sense to people who were bilingual in both English and Spanish since it plays off of the similarities of both Spanish words and their English translations.

Analysis: After D explained the joke to me, I found it quite funny even though they thought it was silly since it was just a stupid joke they played on each other in grade school. It’s interesting how language works with jokes because they sometimes don’t work when translated. This actually reminded me of a joke that I heard from a family friend of mine that only bilingual people who speak both Mandarin and English would understand. You put up four fingers and ask the person what word you are putting up and they will usually respond with “four”. Then you bend your four fingers down and ask them again what word you are putting up and they usually get stumped, so you tell them that it’s “won-der-ful” putting emphasis on the “won” and pronouncing the “ful” similar to four. This is because the “won” sounds a lot like the mandarin word for bend is “弯”, so together it’s roughly translated to “bent four”. 

“코피” and Others — Korean-American Pun Jokes

My informant is a Korean student attending the University of Southern California. He lived in Korea until the fourth grade and then, for familial reasons, moved to the Bay Area, where he went to school until coming down to Southern California for college. When I asked him to tell me a Korean joke, he thought for a bit, laughed, and said, “Weird. I only know Korean-American ones now,” which is understandable considering he has not gone back to Korea in the past five years. Mostly pun jokes, they were composed of Korean and English and require an understanding of both languages for them to be even remotely funny. For instance:

What is a vampire’s favorite drink?
코피 (kopi)!

This is funny because 코피 in Korean means nosebleed, while the way it is pronounced, kopi, sounds a lot like the English word coffee. So while the real answer is nosebleed, kopi adds another dimension to it by making it sound like vampires like coffee. In this case, the audience would need to know English to understand the question, but also the Korean word for nosebleed, and understand that its humor comes from kopi‘s similarity to an English word–a complex, bilingual understanding.

Another example:

Which celebrity likes to hold the most luggage?
Jim Carrey!

Now this is one that, if you did not know better, you would think was an American joke because of the lack of Korean words. However, this is only funny because Jim (or jeem) in Korean means, more or less,  “luggage,” while Carrey just sounds like “carry.” Jim Carrey’s name in Korean-American terms then, could be seen as Luggage Carrey.

These jokes are deceivingly simple, actually requiring a pretty advanced understanding of both languages for them to be immediately funny, as they are supposed to be (my informant could not stop laughing while he told these jokes, while I stared at him blankly, especially the second one). In that way, it can be seen almost as a rite of passage, or a kind of test, for Korean-Americans. To be truly bilingual, to be truly Korean-American, is to be able to understand these kinds of jokes. The fact that these jokes exist at all, in fact, makes it clear that Korean-Americanism is its own culture–that Koreans living in America are not just displaced peoples, losing their culture to America, but an entirely new, emerging culture that thrives on its distinction from both Korea and America.