Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tongue, twisted

When people ask what nationalities the kids are, I sometimes say that Jonah is English by parentage, American by birthright and Irish by idiom. Friday seemed to prove that. I was drying him off after swimming. He pushed his head out from under the towel and beamed at me.

“What’s the craic, Sarah?”

Apparently our firstborn is now officially assimilated, a true Irish twinkle.
I love this, and it confuses me entirely, too. If your children are learning a “real” foreign language – by which I basically mean, a language not your own - the boundaries between (your) mother tongue and the other one are relatively clear, and relatively uncontroversial. Mummy says potato, Daddy says patate, let’s call the whole thing polyglot. There's a right way and a wrong way for each language, and as a parent you help your child navigate the nuances and speak plain sense, if not plain English, as often as possible. Our kids, though, are going to grow up speaking several shades of the same language. We left Seattle before Americanisms had really ever had a chance to grab hold of Jonah’s toddler psyche, so although in weak moments Dave and I may still refer to a “diaper bag” and the “stroller”, Jonah has absolutely no idea what we’re banging on about.

I imagine the same thing would happen to Lucas if we were to suddenly up sticks to Siberia. Right now he may call plaintively for a “deedoo” whenever he wants his “dodie” - which we, his doting parents, would know as, first, a dummy (British English), and secondly, a pacifier (American English, where we learned our baby vocabulary). But give him a month or so and he’d be barking at us in clipped military tones and demanding whatever colloquial Soviet term he could muster.
Still, of the three versions of the English language available to us in this family, we’re still finding it interesting to figure out how to deal with the two in usage. If Jonah says, for example, “Will I hang Lucas out of the window?”, do we “correct” him to the British English? – “Shall I hang Lucas out of the window, darling” (or “NO, for god’s sake”).

Or, since he’s being brought up in Ireland, and thus learning what we should apparently refer to as Hibernian English, should we let it go?

After all, if he were speaking German, or another language with different grammatical structure, it wouldn’t occur to us to change his verb formations to better suit our delicate ears. And he’s not speaking “my” English – he’s speaking his own English, the English, paradoxically, of the Gaels. What we really don't want to do is dilute Jonah's own command of the language too badly so that he's relentlessly teased at school for his weird British pronounciations - that would be a cruel, cruel fate.
It's only really the grammar that makes us twitchy - Jonah's choice of Irish vocabulary seems cute rather than feeling odd. I think this is because, as a parent, you become used to helping your child to navigate the vagaries of the (English) language - or, to be precise, its grammar - yes, Jonah, you "put on" your trousers but you don't "put them off". So learning to leave well alone feels both dichotomous and confusing (a bit like that sentence, doubtless).

We wouldn’t dream of meddling with his accent, which is acquiring the full Dublin lilt even to our relatively neophyte ears (who knew that "green" had 3 syllables to it?). And as for his question on Friday? Well, I had to consult with my Irish pals here, but I'm fully versed in the answer now. To "what's the craic, Sarah?" my only answer can be, "I'm grand, so". We're all getting there, slowly but (to be) surely.


In transit said...

Interesting post. Your son could almost be "bi-lingual", the irish accent being so difficult to understand unless you're used to it!
It's amazing how easy it is to "assimilate".... I've lost all my words - speaking in English here, you really have to dumb it down. Rather than speak Flemish like a Belgian (trying, trying.... failing miserably), I speak English like a Belgian!

Sarah said...

You're very right - his vocabulary can differ so greatly from ours too that it really is like a different language at times. Kind of cool, really. I can only imagine what trying to learn Flemish might be like - would make swallowing your tongue whilst clearing your throat seem easy!

Dunmoylan said...

Love this...interesting learning baby vocab outside of home isn't it? it's on my list for blog topics as well...ahh the pacifier-sounds strange to me now. I have all the same little worries about how our little boy will speak-esp because we live in the country where the dialect is definitely stronger (although my husband sounds quite neutral..even american-ish at times!. The one thing i hope he doesn't pick up on is "sure"..sure this and sure that...you know sure. looking forward to reading more of your posts! Imen M. x

Sarah said...

Imen - thanks for your comment and yeah, I'm sure you and I are going to have a lot of the same thoughts about things! I do find it fascinating to watch the language evolving and find that nearly-4-year-old Jonah can even "translate" for, say, his English grandparents if they have no idea what he means by "bold" in the Irish context. I'm hopeful it's a useful skill and not just horribly confusing to him!