When I met my husband, he barely spoke any English; he was very much at the beginning/pre-production stages of ELL development. The longer we were together, the more he developed out of necessity–my Spanish is just enough to roughly survive life in Mexico as a recluse. His use of the English language was based on me as his model, as I was the only person who spoke English to him with any regularity.
For the most part, my being his language model was not a problem. He frequently impressed other English speakers with many of the words he would use, thanks to my love of big words and reading, and became quite the hit amongst his friends. However, as time went on, one hitch became apparent–he was using the language of a woman.
It isn’t something that I had given much thought to, despite my background in linguistic studies, but men and women use language differently. It can be debated whether or not the differences are nature or nurture (likely both), but the fact is that they are there. Just as breaking any other social norm, it can be awkward when someone unexpectedly breaks the wall of linguistic gender roles.
It is socially acceptable for women to use the word “cute” quite frequently. Men can, and do, use the word as well, but there are more restrictions on their use. They might use the word to refer to a female, a child, or a baby animal, but they are more likely to be reserved in using the term. Additionally, even across gender lines there are restrictions on what can be cute, usually based on the gender associations we have with whatever object is being assessed.
As my husband’s proficiency grew, I began to notice that he used the word cute a lot–which was like turning a mirror on me so that I could see just how often I employ the word in my everyday speech. I was cute, my clothes were cute, the song was cute, the tv show was cute, the restaurant was cute. Everything–according to Sal–was really, really cute.
I still did not think much of this, besides making a resolution to myself to stop saying cute so much. However, one day we were sitting in traffic when he turned to me and said, “Wow, look at that. That truck is soooo cute.”
“No,” I said to him. “No, trucks are not cute.”
“Yes they are. Trucks are very cute. My truck is cute, yes?”
“No, trucks aren’t called cute.” I began to picture him going up to a hillbilly at Wal-Mart with truck nuts dangling from wherever one attaches such things and telling him what a cute truck he has.
“What do you call a truck?” he asked me.
“Nice. Good looking, maybe,” I replied.
“Are cars cute?”
I thought about it for a second. “I guess some are. Like a VW Bug.”
We went on discussing this for a while, what can be cute and what never is. He came to the conclusion that if it is small or “girly” then it is allowed to be cute. Which is actually a little too narrow of a definition, but it would serve him just fine until he could feel out the nuances for himself.