‘I went on awesome today,’ the Chatterbox tells me in the school parking lot. She’s referring to how she did in school. I smile at the way she constructs the sentence. I also catch myself thinking about how American she sounds – and it’s not just the vocabulary she uses. My five-year-old’s changing accent is a source of amusement and some surprise. It wasn’t very long ago that she sounded incredibly British, more specifically like a Londoner. I used to worry that she’d end up sounding Cockney if we stayed in the urban, gritty parts of the city where we lived. When you board some London buses, all you can hear is a bunch of ‘innits’ and ‘yaknows’ screamed into mobile phones.
The fear that my firstborn would start to sound like Vicky Pollard is not my fear now. When once she would say ‘Mummy’, now it is unmistakably ‘Mommy’. It’s a small shift, but to my ears it sounds incredibly different. This shift didn’t happen overnight, of course, but she dropped her British accent in the space of a few weeks.
It makes me wonder about accents and how these are bundled up in someone’s identity. The Chatterbox will forever be identified differently, almost certainly treated differently, if her accent remains American. In London I knew that as soon as I opened my mouth, most strangers would automatically revise their opinion of me. Maybe they weren’t even aware of the fact that they were doing it. It’s probably how most immigrants feel in their adopted country – even if your looks don’t mark you out, your speech will give the game away.
Language and speech are tricky, slippery things. Linguistic accommodation is modifying your speech so that it sounds more like the speech of your conversational partner. According to research (and I’ve not done much myself), the more you resemble your conversational partner – in attraction, likability and charisma, for instance – the more you are likely to modify your speech to suit theirs. This is called convergence. Americans do this in Britain all the time. You can’t help but be influenced by the accent of the people around you, even if unconsciously.
Before I bore you with all this dry, academic stuff, I’ll veer into the more interesting. An article reprinted in The Guardian in 2003 (originally published in the Wall Street Journal) says that only small children can fully master a new accent, unlike their adult counterparts who are doomed to failure. This is not that surprising – children soak up everything and mimic it brilliantly. The expert quoted in the piece says that if a child moves to a new place after age 14, they will never sound like they belong there. Which is why I will never sound English (especially to a Brit), no matter how long I live in London; but it explains why the Chatterbox already sounds like she was born in the United States after only a few months.
I remember talking to a friend of mine in a London playground last year. We were discussing her imminent move to New York in the summer. She is English but her husband is American and they have two little girls about the same age as mine. I asked her how she would feel if her five-year-old suddenly started speaking with an American accent. Would she find it odd? She sighed and said it was inevitable, but I sensed a bit of sadness. She then added: ‘I hope they will still say ‘Mummy’ and not use ‘Mommy’. I would feel sad if they lost that.’
It’s funny, then, that I should feel sad when both my girls use ‘Mommy’ to address me. As an American, you would think I’d encourage them to sound more like me, but I find the shifting accent a source of some regret. Perhaps it’s that I liked the idea of bringing up two British girls, who sounded cute and plummy to Americans. Or maybe it’s that I feel like I am leaving London behind, which was a huge part of my life. Their accent was a connection to that world, and I’m losing it quickly.
It’s probably why my Mexican father was so desperate to make sure we wouldn’t lose conversational Spanish. He would berate us for using English in the house and insisted we struggle to formulate our thoughts in Spanish, even though he could understand us perfectly well in English. It used to frustrate me to no end. I’d rail against him as a teenager and scream in frustration, ‘What’s the point? We are in America!’ I see now that there could have been more at stake than a second language. It might also be that Spanish reminded him of the country he painfully left behind as an adult, and losing that link – even if only in your children – is like losing part of your culture and identity.