September 22nd, 2011

After hockey practice, the kids straggle out of the stadium in ones and twos. We’re usually among the last to leave because although I no longer think the Small Boy dawdles in the dressing room – not much, anyway – he somehow manages to be one of the last ones out of the showers. Tonight either the Small Boy was fast or the son of Nice Woman was slow because we left the stadium at the same time, which pretty much never happens. Small Boy and Nice Woman’s son were chattering in Swiss, and then the Small Boy asked me in English to hold something that he was carrying, because it was falling.

“Was that a Swiss accent?” Nice Woman asked. “I heard a Swiss accent.”

“I KNOW!” I said back. “He’s not supposed to have one! All the bilingual books say a bilingual kid is supposed to speak both languages accent free, he’s supposed to sound just like me but he totally has an accent!”

“But when he speaks Swiss you don’t hear an accent at all.”

“No, his Swiss is perfect,” I said. “It’s better than his English, actually. And he prefers it.”

And it’s true. He speaks English with a Swiss accent, which ALL the language books say shouldn’t happen, and his English is imperfect. It is very, very good but it’s imperfect; what’s telling is, the mistakes he makes are typical mistakes German-speakers make when speaking English. The use of a false friend; a slightly hinky word order; a certain mispronunciation. I don’t think the Boychen has a Swiss accent when he speaks English, but I’m not sure I would hear it if he did – I forget, until somebody like Nice Lady mentions it, that the Small Boy does so for all I know Boychen does too. I have decided not to worry about this – I continue to model native English, make corrections as needed, and read English books aloud but I’m not going to get terribly worked up about this. It is what it is. It is not what I imagined – as a poet and writer it’s disconcerting to have a child speaking English as, essentially, an excellent second language but the Small Boy is the Small Boy and Swiss is the language of his heart. I am trying to let him make that choice. I am so wrapped up with words, with English words, that I have remind myself to let Small Boy not be wrapped up in them. He doesn’t have to be a wordie. He doesn’t have to be like me.

It’s strange though, to suddenly be reminded that my child speaks with a Swiss accent. Strange that he does it, and strange that I no longer fully notice.

Any parents of bilingual children out there with similar experiences? What do you do when you feel a language imbalance growing? Do you have a secret preferred language in your heart?