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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My little mongrel

Recently, for the first time in years I spoke to my older daughter on the phone. Is it just me, or is there a huge difference between children “live and unplugged” compared with their telephonic versions? In person, the actual sound of a child’s voice is somehow less obvious - it is just one part of the overall impact. I hear what my children are saying, but their words are coloured and flavoured with countless visual distractions – animated little faces, enthusiastic gestures, and those little quirks like pulling at clothes, or jumping restlessly from one foot to the other. In contrast, all you get on the phone is their pure, disembodied voice. They sound younger and more vulnerable, somehow, and their speech sounds so much more quirky and unfinished.

And speaking to Big Sister on the phone the other day I realised, for the first time, what a strange accent she has.

Frankly, I’m amazed I didn’t notice it before. In terms of grammar and vocabulary, she speaks English well for her age (surprisingly well, really, considering that she has never lived in an English-speaking country). Her pronunciation and intonation, however, are a direct reflection of the fact that she has lived in Japan and Finland, has parents from Australia and Finland, and attends a school where teachers speak English with American, Finnish and British accents.

She has what could be called a truly international accent. Her English pronunciation is, frankly, a bit of a mongrel.

In one sense, I love this. I love that she’s not from anywhere in particular and has absorbed all kinds of cultural influences during her young life. I love that, at the age of 6, she has already learned three different languages. I love that she’s bright and original.

On the other hand, her different-ness – the very thing I love about her – makes me panic a bit. As a child, especially at primary school, what I always wanted most was to be the SAME as other children. People who were different got teased and bullied. In this sense, I can’t help worrying about my little mongrel.

I also worry from a language perspective. If you don’t speak English with a recognisable accent (British, Australian, American) is your English still, technically, “correct”? Amongst native speakers, will you still get recognised as one of the crowd, or will you always be regarded (consciously or unconsciously) as a foreigner? I am not a native speaker of Finnish, so I can’t make an accurate first-hand judgment of Big Sister’s accent in her second-strongest language, but what if my little girl’s Finnish is similarly tainted with The Unusual?

Does coming from a culturally-rich background mean, in real terms, that actually she comes from nowhere in particular, and consequently will be an outsider wherever she goes?

Many friends have told me to let these worries go; that they are not worth fretting over; that her uniqueness is a strength, not a weakness. Of course, over time I will try hard to help her be confident in herself and proud of who she is. I will try to help her embrace challenges and tackle them in her own, distinctive way.

God help me, all I want is for her to be happy, but have I, by my own hand, already denied her that? I can’t help worrying that my own life choices have set her up for a bloody complicated road through life. Please let her be up to the challenge.

24 comments:

  1. Blimey, of all the thins to worry about I wouldn't fret to hard over an accent. The world is now so small and yet so diverse. We all lap up people with differences, we fall in love with the exoctic. Sometimes other children lap up children with a different accent as special and all want to be their friend and sometimes they will laugh at them. I was talking to a lady at the weekend about how she moved from Scotland to London at the age of 12 and lost her Scottish accent within weeks to 'fit in'. It seems to me that those 'expat parents' bringing up bi-lingual well travelled children are giving their kids options that the rest of us could only dream of. She'll be right ;)

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    1. LOL - I'll fret over my spelling and typos though - sorry

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    2. Thanks so much for the vote of confidence! You're quite right, of course, that often the kid who is different becomes the centre of attention and the "exotic" one, rather than the target of bullies. Fingers crossed!

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  2. Everybody find their own road through life and kids especially tend to simplify things. I don't think you need worry. Kids are good at accepting things as they are. It's when they become teenagers and start questioning everything that you have to worry!

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    1. You're so right, Steve. And I'm guessing that by the time Big Sister is a teenager I will have well and truly put this particular worry into perspective, and will have moved on to much bigger and scarier issues to panic about... things that are actually worth my anxiety!

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  3. You can never deny her happiness through your own hand. Happiness is something that we each control for ourselves. Even the most unloved children determine if they are truly happy or not.

    I think that living in multiple countries is a blessing. So lap up the accent. It is truly unique (imagine how many boys she can choose to confuse in a pub when she is 18) ;0

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    1. Lake House Writer, thank you for reminding me of this really important thing - that happiness truly is within everyone's grasp, and that no responsible adult blames his or her parents for lack of happiness, success, or similar.

      LOL - can just imagine Big Sister chatting up boys 12 years from now... Now that I think about it, she is a bit of a would-be actress and drama queen already at age 6. At age 18 she will surely be in her element :)

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  4. My friend from the UK moved here to Lapland years ago. Their kids were at that time 11 and 13. The 11 y.o. has been VERY fluent in Finnish 'coz he's a very social boy and everybody who doesn't know that he's British will say that they swear they think he was born in Finland. Now that he's 18 and he goes to a Finnish AMK and he talks more and more in Finnish (he doesn't live at home anymore), her Mom notices that he's become more and more Finnish in every way. The eldest son isn't the same 'coz it's like he wants to retain his Britishness in some ways.

    So I suppose it's all up to your child as well. For me personally, I'm a Chinese Indo, but I had always felt "out of place" so to speak in Indo 'coz I'm not a native. Even if I (for example) moved to China, they would consider me as a stranger 'coz I don't speak the language and cultural-wise, I'm not Chinese. I wasn't a native in Indo nor in Finland, but that doesn't really matter. To be honest, feeling as a non-native all my life in Indo had actually helped me when I moved to Finland. :-))) So what if I'll never be a native anywhere? That's a part of my identity that I've accepted (it was hard when I was younger and I wanted to be a part of something, but not anymore).

    As to accents, I think that if you end up staying long in Finland (or permanently), I have a feeling that your children will end up like my friend's youngest son.

    P.S. Culturally speaking, now I'm between Finnish and Chinese-Indo culture. Some things that I considered normal before in Indo now become more and more strange 'coz I'm more used to the equivalents in Finnish culture.

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    1. Oh typo...I mean cultural-wise, I'm not mainland Chinese, though there are some Chinese traditions that I've come to know from my Chinese families in Indo, but I'm not sure if they're really the same as the ones in mainland China.

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    2. Amel, it was really interesting to read your comment, since it sounds like you've had a background that has been as culturally diverse as my daughter's, if not more! It's interesting to read that you found you were more open to adapting to life elsewhere because you didn't have such a strong cultural identification with the country of your birth. Really interesting!

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    3. and very reassuring, too. Thank you so much :D

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    4. You're very welcome. It's really tough to be a parent 'coz it's hard to gauge whether you've done the "right" things or not and you'll probably only be able to see the results in the far future and each child is different and life takes your children in different directions sometimes...but anyhow, Happy Mother's Day! :-D I salute you for being a mother who cares that much. :-)))

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  5. What does her accent sound like? Although it would certainly be no tragedy if she were to grow up speaking with an accent, my guess is that she'll lose it and perhaps acquire an Australian accent, or possibly an amalgam of all the native English accents that she hears every day. Regardless of what happens in terms of her English, it sounds like she's turning into one well-rounded and interesting person. :)

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    1. Elena, I will have to try to and post a recording of her so that you can judge for yourself! Right now her accent is definitely a patchwork of the different influences on her English, and it also changes constantly depending on the people with whom she spends the most time!

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  6. Like me you worry too much. I worry that I have let my children grow up speaking only English with a "perfect" English accent, and didn't encourage them more to speak Japanese when I had the chance, and haven't encouraged them to speak more languages from an early age. I always thought when growing up that I would LOVE to have been truly bilingual. I always thought that I would let my kids be that if I could. However I chose to focus on their English. Sometimes I am happy about that, and sometimes I think of what might have been and there is some regret. Life is all about making choices, and as long as we make the choices that we think best at the time, then what more can we do. Who knows how things will turn out, there are no guarantees whatever we choose for our kids. So hakuna matata as they say....

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    1. It makes me laugh that we are worried for exactly opposite reasons! As you say, no matter how much we stress about decisions relating to your children, there is no guarantee that they will do any lasting good (or bad!)

      Also, as my husband loves to remind me, we can change course at any time, and in very radical ways (if we choose). If I really and truly wanted my daughters to grow up speaking Australian English exclusively, we could always move to Australia! Perhaps one or both of them will do just that as adults... who knows?

      There are no guarantees, and nothing is set in stone.

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    2. ahem, I should have written "decisions relating to OUR children"! You will be relieved to learn that I am quite happy not to stress about your children as well as my own :)

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  7. Try not to worry. In my experience kids are very accepting and the vast majority are drawn to and interested in those people that aren't the same as everyone else. The small majority that aren't - well, they're not worth worrying about and anyway, you can give your children the tools to deal with people like that.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment, and for the reassurance! Yes, I will certainly try to teach my children how to deal with small-minded and bigoted people. After all, even those of us with accents that don't stand out from the crowd have had to deal with such people...

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  8. Interesting thoughts... I speak english myself like you say, with an unrecognisable accent. Being dutch but having grown up in non dutch countries I do not have a dutch accent at all. People struggle where to place me. Mostly people think I am british, apart from the british themselves, who pick up un the fact that I am, in fact, not, but have no clue what to make of me. Does that make me an outsider? I think not. It makes me feel rather special. Or just me. I like being neutral in that sense. I would not want to be seen as either british/ american or australian. I am international, broad-minded, and that is how I like to sound, although with a european flavour preferably.

    My children have a beautiful native accent in british english. Even 'worse' my son has taken over a bit of the northern twang of his teacher, I suppose that as we don't speak English at home she is his main influence. I twinge a bit when I hear his 'speakink' instead of 'speaking', but at the same time I am so proud of his pronunciation of th and p's, so beautiful as I will never be able to. Yet his dutch is fluent and accent-less too.

    Your kids will develop their own accents that will reflect their special heritage, live and personalities. And they should be proud of that, and everyone worth anything will respect them for it! I wouldn't worry. Growing up internationally will always make you belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but for me, both as a child and now as an adult, that has always been a good thing. That is what I think about when I make my plans to drag my kids across the world. My parents did the same to me and I loved it. So I can only hope it will be good for them too.

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    1. Thank you so much for your long and thoughtful comment, Karien. It was great to hear from people like you and Amel, who have grown up in a more international environment than I did (I lived in Australia until I was 17). Like you, my gut feeling is that dragging my kids across the world is the right thing for us as a family, and (in particular) the right thing for two children whose parents are from different countries. If I really think about it, my desire for them to understand what it is to be Finnish and European, and to have the chance to learn both their parents' mother tongues, is greater than my desire for them to speak English with an Australian (or British, or American) accent.

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  9. I am very fascinated by accents although I can never place them - even the obvious. I think they are a great conversation starter which means your little girl will always find people want to tslk to her, which should encourage her to be confident and proud of her amazing upbringing.

    I would love the opportunity to travel more with Dylan and let him learn about what an amazingly large and diverse world we live in but we are settled now, and our jobs will never take us in this direction.

    x

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  10. Aw bless her, I bet she sounds ace. My cousins are British but spent their formative years in Hong Kong attending the International School, so they had this weird mix of very posh US. It never did them any harm, even being a great talking point for them in meeting new people when they eventually made it back to British soil. It's certainly nothing to worry about. Cruel school chums will always find something to single someone out for if they really want to - and I'm sure you'll be able to provide her with the life skills to tell other kids to shove it! Thanks for linking up to Fail Friday, though I think you cheated this week :)

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