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.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

One these things is not like the other one

Drive from work to daycare, Seattle-style: look up to see two bald eagles circling overhead.

Drive from work to creche, Dublin-style: pause at zebra crossing to let past a nun in running shoes.

Of course, neither of these would have happened in London because you'd never drive to work (and I didn't have kids the years I lived there, so I definitely wasn't driving to daycare) - but I did once encounter a guy with a gun on the tube. Does that count? In case anyone had wondered whether we were truly English, my friend and I, rather than running screaming off the tube, just inched our way gently down the crowded carriage. Our theory was that by putting distance between us and the gun, we wouldn't get too splattered when the inevitable bloodshed occurred. Yes, this sounds as ridiculous to me now as it seemed intrinsically logical then.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who, Sir? Me, Sir? - Yep, me, apparently

I’ve always maintained that a huge chunk of my personality is that of a pre-adolescent boy. There’s the inclination to dress primarily in jeans and trainers; the love of bad action movies (not for nothing did we go to see “Wolverine” the evening of my birthday). Yeah, sure, OK; but that could define most of the population at some point or another, I suppose. There's always been some other, random element of small boys (but not small girls, who seem so much more knowing) that seems so familiar to me.

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled back across one of my favourite-ever kids’ books. It was turned into a TV series too, I think, but beyond my time, so I don’t have any associations of that side of thing; mine are all with the written word (story of my life, really). The linked version seems to be some kind of teaching copy; the battered old edition I have says it was printed in 1983, which seems about right.

Anyway, two pages into re-reading it I came across this description, and it struck such a chord that I belted down the stairs, book in hand, screeching, “look, it’s me!”. Substitute the "Hoomey" for "Sarah" and it entirely sums up the 12-year-old-boy-ness I've been trying to articulate all these years:

"Hoomey, a transparently innocent, completely unmalicious, undersized, earnest child was given to state unpleasant truths out of pure honesty. He was sensitive, vulnerable, amazed when his honest truths gave offence".

I’m guessing this post would be hideously narcissistic if I wasn’t relating to a fictional 12-year-old boy – or maybe that just makes it worse….

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It's just a jump to the left...

I just spent twenty-four hours in a time warp. From the time I rang the entry bell to Nick’s flat, it felt like I’d gone through the door at the back of the wardrobe. Instead of Narnia, though, I’d arrived in my past, more or less as I remembered it from 10 years ago. Same flatmate, give or take a few years; same workmates; same far-more-play-than-work-mates; same book fair - nerd's paradise for someone like me. 

I've never been nonchalant about working with and around books; I'd be far cooler if I were, but then that's true of most of my life. "Achingly hip" isn't exactly the phrase used to describe me: "Ridiculously enthusiastic" is probably a more accurate description. And it plays out in every aspect of my life; always has, always will, I dare say, at this point. 

 The details of the trip play out in my head over and again. Paused at traffic lights, I make list upon list of the sheer number of old pals I bumped into or sought out. I pass myself in a mirror and find I’m beaming like a belisha beacon at the memory of phrases repeated, grooves remembered, faces flickering from confusion to recognition (“You’re back from Canada!” came the frequent exclamation. Well, yes, and no. Never went to Canada; not exactly “back”). . It felt entirely surreal after six years out of England to be back in situ, and exactly right at the same time.

A hangar full of books. A room full of people who, for a few brilliant years, were my people and, it turns out, still are. A chocolate cake the size of my head and my old partner in crime to share it with. Whatever the opposite of a hangover is, I’ve just had one.