accentYou say “potay-toe”, I say “potah-toe”… let’s not call the whole thing off, but work on getting the message across as well as possible… at least for the kids to be able to follow our conversations!

The issue here is that despite our mutual mother tongue- English- I and my husband are from opposite sides of the world, and have very different pronunciation (not to mention vocabulary) for so many things. His Australian accent, while not strong, is still there; and my British accent is, well, decidedly British. I never really noticed it until I realised how it would affect my kids: my pre-schooler asked one morning “Mama, can I have yo-gurt /ˈjoʊ.ɡɚt/ today”… the o as in Oh my God! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: vitamin, castle and other everyday words just have different pronunciation… my husband, children and I also have to navigate through pavement vs footpath; aubergine vs eggplant;  red/ green pepper vs capsicum etc. without even starting on the cultural issues of Marmite vs Vegemite or (proper) football vs Aussie rules, etc…

The British are still very class conscious (I highlight class conscious here, not classist), despite the  BBC (among other corporations) trying to move away from Received Pronunciation and employing more and more news readers with regional accents. People still judge you by your accent, whether you’re on TV or applying for a job. Maybe there’s now no more Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, but the rain should still fall “mainly in the plain“. Fortunately these distinctions don’t apply to non- British it would seem; other English accents- American, Australian, South African etc.- are all far more accepted, but many people still believe that to fit in properly you need to sound ‘right’.

And so this leads to code switching within a language- to make yourself one of the crowd. Having travelled and worked as a teacher in a lot of countries I have learnt that it is useful (even essential) to be easy to understand, and so my south- eastern British- English accent deserted me somewhat, to become more of an unrecognisable, but unmistakably British still, accent. Now as a teacher when I start with a new class I apologise for my lack of accent, as surely it would be useful to a class to be exposed to a real accent. I have to let them know they will hear some Australian and American in my speech as my husband and my work in the USA have affected how I say certain words… i.e. 4 is always with a strong [r] sound for me now from telephoning in the USA. However, unlike many others, I always found code switching pretty easy- with my Scottish family I pick up a bit of the lilt, and with South African friends in the past I felt that I was taking on some of their accent after a couple of days together. I used to think it was rude and tried not to do it, but now I see that it’s my way of trying to integrate myself and be recognised as one of the crowd.

Ideally I would like to give my children the tools to become expert code-switchers. I don’t want them to buy into the snobbery about language and accent, but rather become skilled enough to go beyond it, to use their English “bilingualism” to their advantage. Hopefully they’ll be able to do the same with other languages that they will learn (as with the Austrian German that they are currently receiving at Kindergarten). In the meantime, I guess I’ll just have to accept that football isn’t what I thought it was.

Advertisements