Swinglish

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?


6 Responses to “Swinglish”

  1. Claudia on September 23, 2011 8:19 am

    Yes, exactly. My DD5 only just got a grip on English well enough to communicate with non-Danish-speaking Americans without me having to play interpreter, thanks to a very unplanned trip to the states last month.
    But! She spoke English like a robot programmed to imitate a 5-year-old. She didn’t put much or any intonation in until the last week there, and even then it was weird.

    I’m a linguistophile (yea yea, not a word), and really resented having to learn such a clunky, inelegant language as Danish, so having her rattle off her thoughts in Danish, and then say something else in very stilted English makes me a bit sad. But you’re right; she doesn’t have to be like me, and who knows, she may be flawless in English someday, American accent and all.
    We had a huge language imbalance for all her speaking years until this spring, when we had American guests over. That day, she really understood that they would not understand a single Danish word. She started to separate the languages with a new awareness from then on. And now she’s on her way to conversational fluency. She does ask what a word means all the time, so the interest is there.

    whew, sorry you asked? 😛

  2. Claudia on September 23, 2011 8:20 am

    Oh, and I just now got what Swinglish means. Of course, here it’s Danglish.

  3. Elizabeth on September 23, 2011 1:38 pm

    You know, I grew up bilingual as well as trying to raise bilingual children, and it seems to me that language ability in childhood is very mutable. I’ve read the anthropology literature on this, and it seems to indicate that kids are incredibly adept at code-switching and doing it appropriately – that is, using only one language with a person who is monolingual, and using the appropriate register as well (playground slang with children, more formal registers with adults, etc.). I think if your son was immersed in an English-dominant peer group that his accent would shift in a short time. If the only person he speaks English with is you, that doesn’t have the same effect that his peer group does.

    I ended up being English-dominant even though my mom always spoke to us in Spanish, because we went to school in English and most of our friends (my sisters and mine) spoke English. When we spent a lot of time with my Spanish-speaking side of the family our fluency would shift. My parents actually found it really difficult to encourage our Spanish language development when we were the age that Small Boy is now. In adolescence, we sort of took charge of our own language development in a different and more conscious way.

    Does Small Boy hear English spoken with a Swiss accent by his peers or teachers? That would also influence his pronunciation.

    And I joke that my kids’ first language will be Shqipenglishpañol (Shqip is what Albanians call Albanian) since I try to talk to them exclusively in Spanish but I’m not very consistent with it. I do better when my mom is around.

    p.s. I’ve just started following your blog but I’m a crap commenter because I mostly read on the iPod and it sucks for typing comments. Trying to catch up today 🙂 I also blog sort of anonymously at projectprogeny.wordpress. Your writing about trying to balance writing, motherhood, and life as an expat really resonates with me as I’m trying to write a dissertation here!

  4. rswb on September 24, 2011 10:34 am

    The No is a bit young for us to know yet (she’s 17 months and only says about 6 words), but this morning I discovered that she wants to say “hasli” instead of bunny. After the millions of times I’ve read The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies to her, I feel like I’ve been betrayed. At least mummy/mami is close enough to not make a difference.

  5. Tracy on September 24, 2011 7:50 pm

    I have several American friends here married to locals and all of their kids either came here very young or were born here and, as a result, are bilingual. Eventually, because Finland has two national languages, they will be trilingual. Many of these moms make a concerted effort for the kids to be around native American English speakers, especially kids, to learn and keep up with their American English. They want to make sure the kids hear and speak American English with other kids, but part of me also wonders if it is also a way to forge a stronger tie to home (and yes, home will always be America to them).

    It is also common that the kids quickly become better Finnish speakers than the moms because the language is so difficult to learn (many say second only to Mandarin). I can’t imagine my child and husband conversing and me not understanding it. The more I meet people in the expat community, the more I see it, though. We are doing an English language mommy/baby class. There is a woman from China, married to a Finn. She speaks Chinese to the baby, he speaks Finnish and they talk to each other in English. The funniest part is that the baby looks very Asian, but has a very traditional Finnish name. Finland is not the most diverse place on the planet, so I am sure as this baby grows older, people will assume he is a visitor and not a local.

    Do you have any idea what language Small Boy uses when he thinks? Or when he dreams? I was once told that you are truly bilingual when you dream in both languages. The way you write of Small Boy, I would guess he is thinking and dreaming in Swiss.

  6. Jennifer on September 26, 2011 12:42 pm

    Such interesting comments!

    @ Claudia – I’m convinced that some of the reason Small Boy’s Swiss is so strong relative to his English is that he always understood his grandparents simply do not understand English whereas I would understand Swiss even if I never speak it.

    @ Elizabeth – welcome! Small Boy hears English spoken with a very light Swiss accent by my husband, but otherwise his Swiss friends are all too young to speak English – they begin English in the 5th class here. (As it stands now. There are efforts to move that to the 3rd class).

    @ Robyn – yes, on a woe-is-me expatty sort of a day, it’s hard not to feel – slighted when they “reject” English in “favor” of Swiss. I’m guessing you using the word betrayal is a bit tongue in cheek but also the tiniest bit true some days? (It is with me)

    @ Tracy – Yes, it’s very important to me that SB keeps up his English. It is getting harder to arrange plays with English speaking friends, though, as he’s at an age to pick his own friends and there are no English speakers in his school class and only 3 in his hockey school and one of those doesn’t like to speak English, he prefers German. (not Swiss. German. Confusing enough?). Here in German-speaking Switzerland the kids start learning French in the third grade, so SB will end up tri-lingual too. Yes – if I had to guess I’d say SB’s first language is Swiss – when he and Boychen play together and I’m in another room I hear them playing in Swiss.

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