When English Is NOT Your First Language: Mispronouncing the Word “Focus”

I didn’t start learning English until I was five or six years old. Before that, it was all Spanish.

But in pre-kinder, I was deposited like a cashier’s check into an American school, which was formerly a British school in the 1920s, and I almost had a conniption.

Suddenly, I had no idea what was going on. Not only that, but if you had to go to the bathroom, which for some reason you always have to go when you’re five or six, you had to ask Mrs. Borrás in English. If you asked her in Spanish, she would narrow her eyes at you, shake her head, and say: “No ticket, no laundry.”

It was terrifying, but I learned English out of a physical necessity to empty my bladder after drinking one too many Capri Suns during snack time. I didn’t want to undergo my friend Hugh’s embarrassment: he couldn’t ask her in English, so he peed on himself in class.

English is a cloak and dagger language. It’s not like Spanish, Italian or even Hebrew, where what you see is what you get: No questions asked, and no prisoners taken.

English takes prisoners, because it’s not phonetic. English derives a sadistic joy in taking prisoners whose first language is Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Romansh, and Romanian. English is not someone you take out on a romantic date.

My trips to English jail started in 1985, on a daily basis, but in the 1990s, they trailed off (although they still happen once in awhile).

But the word that landed me in English jail for almost a decade was: “focus.”

There were two competing pronunciations for this word in my life: the way my parents pronounced it at home, and the way it was pronounced by Mr. Ralph Manon, my history teacher from NYC.

Ask my mom to pronounce it, and she will say: “FOH-Qs.” Then, she’ll “correct” herself and say, “Fuck us.”

To this day, she actually believes that the word “focus” is pronounced “fuck us.”

At first, I thought I was alone in this travesty. I tried all through high school to get my mother out of English jail, but she was suffering from a severe case of Stockholm syndrome. But how could I get her out of jail when I was also in jail? I had no source of inspiration. The Shawshank Redemption hadn’t come out yet, thanks Morgan Freeman.

Meanwhile, privately, on my own and in shame, I would sit in my room and pronounce “focus” over and over and over, trying to imitate Mr. Manon’s pronunciation. Sometimes, all that would come out was “FOH-Qs.” But sometimes, almost like a miraculous apparition of the Virgin of Fatima, the American pronunciation of the word would come out.

But as soon as I had triumphantly pronounced it, the word had already escaped through my bedroom window at the speed of light, and I couldn’t get it back again. As a result, I stayed away from the word “focus” for my entire junior year of high school. It was too much of a gamble.

I thought I was alone with this Greek tragedy: at one point, I considered ripping my eyes out like Oedipus to drive the point home (to whom, I don’t know.)

But then, the summer of my junior year, I finally learned how to pronounce the word AND with different intonations with the help of Brooke O’Neill (Michigan), Howard Tong (New Jersey), and Richard Wildman (California). These gentle souls taught me how to pronounce the word by sitting down with me and literally giving me speech therapy.

After that, “focus” ceased to torment me, English gave me the finger, and I retaliated by giving English two fingers.

…that is, until sophomore year of college, when someone recounted the following story:

A friend’s mother was Puerto Rican and a kindergarten teacher in New Jersey. Apparently, there was a hellion in her class by the name of Jimmy, who would not sit still, would not sit down, and would not shut up. Finally, she had it.

“Jimmy! Hey Jimmy! Yes, I’m talking to you! Do you want to go on to first grade? Or do you want to stay in kindergarten for the rest of your life?”

Jimmy screamed. “First grade first grade first grade!”

“Good,” my friend’s mother said. “But if you want to go on to first grade, you need to fuck us.”

For the first time in his life, Jimmy sat down and shut up. He looked stunned for the rest of the day, and my friend’s mother was so happy. Jimmy looked like he had been injected with a horse tranquilizer.

That is, until she was called to the principal’s office the next day by Jimmy’s deranged mommy. Apparently, Jimmy came home and informed his parents that he needed to fuck the teacher in order to get to first grade, and he wanted to know whether “fuck us” was some kind of project he had to do with construction paper, Elmer’s glue, scissors, and could he please use red Crayolas?

After I heard that story, my brain unraveled, and I couldn’t pronounce “focus” for about a month. Somehow, my brain reverted to “FOH-Qs.”

But I learned something else in kindergarten: you never give up. So when English punches me in the face with the word “focus” I watch this inspirational video:

“It’s not about how hard you hit; it’s about how you hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It’s about about how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!!”

Thanks, Sly.

And English: I’m coming for you, when you least suspect it. I’m known for my element of ninja surprise. I have also been working out, and I’ve been told that I hit hard. I’ve got pepper spray, a stun gun, a taser, brass knuckles, and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

And if I go down, I’m taking you down with me.

Say hi to your mother for me.