wmbphotoFrequently I am embarrassed by the fact that I only speak one language. Many of my friends in Abu Dhabi speak at least two, and most of my students speak three or even four. A few years ago I tried to learn Arabic and was stymied by a simple fact: my brain is old. It’s that whole “old dog new tricks” thing, which is to say, my brain wanted nothing to do with new lexical and grammatical systems.

Lately, however, I’ve been confronted with another new language and it’s proving equally difficult to master. In fact, maybe I will never master it.

It’s the language spoken by fifteen-year old boys in the twenty-first century in a first-world city. It’s both a spoken and a written language, comprised of monosyllables, grunts, emojis, and weird snapchat abbreviations. It’s a language that his friends speak fluently and one that he never deigns to translate to us, his parents.

Let me be clear: my son is the proverbial “good kid,” who still (occasionally) sits on my lap (usually when he wants a favor), does his homework without being asked, and is (sometimes) nice to his younger brother. But beyond that?

We get commentary about his basic human needs—food, sleep, wi-fi—and then he retreats into his digitally created iCocoon.

When I look at my son these days, the air seems full of ghosts; it’s like I’m seeing time, compressed and wispy, floating between the two of us. I see his baby self, staggering around the house with mushy graham crackers clenched in each fist, and I see other snippets of his childhood, too, hovering just beyond his (increasingly broad) shoulders. And at the same time, there’s the ghost of my own teenage self, snarling at my mother (sorry mom!) as I stand by the phone, willing The Cute Boy to call me.

The phone is a key difference in this linguistic and generational incomprehension. Those of you of a certain age will remember the days when houses had those things we now call “land lines,” which were anchored in a specific place and were frequently shared by the entire household. That meant that your TOTALLY ANNOYING younger siblings could pick up another extension and a) eavesdrop on your conversation; b) tell your mom what you were talking about; c) tease you mercilessly while you tried to be cool with The Cute Boy on the other end of the line.

Now, however, my son and his teenage friends carry a scrim of adolescence with them at all times, an endless stream of chitterchatter, gossip, sports scores, vaguely obscene quizzes, and god knows what else. Did you know it’s possible to have a scintillating conversation conducted entirely in poop and unicorn emojis, with the occasional emoti-face thrown in for good measure? It’s as if teenagers have all been transported into an ancient Egyptian civilzation and are fluent in hieroglyphs—yet another language I do not speak.

As I think about it, I am not sure, really, whether it’s that my son and I are speaking different languages or that his other language is omnipresent in a way that my teenspeak was not, because technology didn’t let it happen.

At some point I had to hang up the phone and turn off the TV, and engage with my family. Mind you, I wasn’t necessarily pleased about those engagements, but the world of “non-family” was regularly shut off.

Now, with smart phones, the external world is always ready to hand; there is always a way to tune out the family world.

I can hear you all, shaking your heads and muttering that we should set some boundaries and be firm about your expectations and teach your kid some manners and I bet that some of you, with small children, are thinking “my children won’t ever…”

Here’s the thing: I’ve thought all those things too. But then one night my son became fifteen and the battle lines got redrawn. How many times can we argue about how much phone use is too much; how many times can we discuss “reasonable use?” My son insists that I am the only parent who nags about such things, but my totally unscientific research suggests otherwise. I’ve talked with friends from Europe, Africa, the States, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and the screen-time battle seems to be an almost universal parenting problem.

If I think about it, the translation problems run in two directions. If my son could speak “parent,” then he would understand that in my repeated (and to him unreasonable) requests that he turn off his phone and talk to me, I am really saying “don’t grow up so fast, please don’t be in such a hurry to leave us behind.” He would understand that watching him grow up is lovely — and ineffably sad.

Maybe he’d understand if I put it in snapchat-ese for him. Can anyone translate into emoji for me?

How are things different now from when you were a teen? Do you find that the teens of today speak a different language?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn, Mannahattamamma of the UAE. Photo credit to the author.

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

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