When my mom fled a civil war in Liberia for the US, she was unsure she’d ever see my father again. He was Senegalese and had no means of going with her. Later, she told me they had initially remained in contact, and that I spoke to him in French. As much as a two-year-old could, anyhow. I certainly don’t remember that, though I do know we lost contact with him until just recently.
Now, newly reconnected, almost every message I send my dad arrives with an emoji of some kind—usually ones I hope convey exuberance or a general happiness with things. He responds in kind, with a thumbs up or heart or—his favorite—the grinning cartoon chicken sticker. But because I’m not a fluent French speaker and his English is equally as rudimentary we often run into issues in the most basic of conversations.
Once, he asked me if I had a desk at work. I’d forgotten the French word for desk and plainly told him so. He teased that I needed to study his native language more and sent a gif of a little character at a desk along with a picture of his own work space. I understood immediately and, while feeling ridiculous for forgetting a simple word, I replied with a picture captioned, “Here’s my desk,” and added a tears of joy emoji for good measure. Usually, I send him my messages full of French grammar mistakes and incorrect phrases rather than open Google Translate—initiating a back-and-forth around a concept or term that lasts according to how much I’ve misunderstood something.
I rely on emojis when communicating with him. And the medium is especially suited to the task of bridging language gaps over the internet, according to Salikoko S. Mufwene, a linguistics professor at University of Chicago who specializes in language contact and evolutionary linguistics.
“Naturally we show through our body language, through our facial expressions, whether we’re upset, whether we’re happy and so forth and it doesn’t matter whether you are Japanese or Chinese or Senegalese or French: you’re going to recognize it,” Mufwene said. “And that is what the emoji are doing.”
Mufwene explains that, because emoji are essentially pictures, that allows them to operate similarly to body language. That is, they physically resemble what they represent, and in the case of facial expressions, they can serve as a rough translation of how someone is feeling. However, emoji also take on meaning beyond the literal level. Laurel Mackenzie, an assistant professor of linguistics at New York University, explained to me that families often have their own in-group meanings for emoji, phrases, or gestures. Basically, they use emoji to construct their own family language.
This is true of Zoë Haylock, a 21-year-old Palmdale, California, native and daughter of Belizean immigrants, who says her father often sends her a single emoji or bitmoji each day. This practice started once she began college, after her father attended a meeting for the parents of soon-to-be college freshmen. “[It means] he’s thinking about me, or he’s worrying about me, and that’s a sweet thing,” Haylock told me. In 20-year-old New York University student Elli Hu’s case, her family language is tied to encounters like speaking to her grandparents. Hu explains that when she speaks Mandarin to her grandparents they often flip into Shanghainese mid conversation, which Hu doesn’t speak. “So halfway through I just lose them,” she said.
She defines most of her family language as based around jokes which play with languages or poke fun at her and other family members. The rose emoji, in particular, has come to represent “I’m proud of you” or “nice job,” in her family. Beyond that, Hu points to a WeChat sticker series that is now synonymous with her in the family group chat.
“It’s this animated humanoid frog and humanoid horse and they dance and do weird shit as reaction stickers,” Hu said. “A couple of them I use a lot and I think my family knows what I mean if I send a frog. They just know—because I think a lot of the gestures are very ‘me.’”
Dr. Rachael Tatman, a data scientist whose academic background is in computational sociolinguistics, clarifies that in-jokes among friends is very similar to family language. “Basically, the more shared experiences two people have, the more shared information they have,” Tatman explained. “That means you need less information to bring up a specific event. In information theoretic terms, there's less entropy.”
I often think about whether I would’ve been close with my father had I gotten the chance to have him around growing up. Nonetheless, I can make use of something as simple as an emoji to bridge that divide and build deep connections with him on my own terms. It may be just a smiley emoji, but it stands in place of every time my father didn’t get the chance to see his first child smile. I’m grateful for that. Code-switching—or changing the way we speak according to who is listening—is not a new concept, but what has changed is the medium we’re doing it through.
This technology is still evolving, which means translations aren’t always perfect. We may make culturally specific jokes that don’t land or, even more often, my father will use a phrase I don't know. Still, emojis are there for when I complain about the heat and send a string of suns or he wishes me a happy Liberian Independence Day with a party popper emoji. There are still plenty of times when the simplest back and forth between us comes to a halt because of our language barrier. But each time we overcome those barriers, the bridge we’re building to one another becomes stronger and more worthwhile.
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