My daughter is now 2 and 3/4 years old. This post is about what currently seem to be her three conceptual categories of language: unmarked, Spanish, and America.
‘Unmarked’ is just my way of referring to aspects of language she doesn’t talk about; things that are just normal and unnoticed by her. I could blog about the interesting things that seem to be unmarked, to her, but that’s for another day.
‘Spanish’ is her word for any unintelligible language, anything she can’t understand. She’s been using the term for months now, and I’ve recently started explicitly pointing out when we overhear Spanish versus other languages, to (teach her and) see when she figures out that Spanish is something specific.
And, last but not least, there’s ‘America’. She has heard me describe certain words and pronunciations as American. Like the time when we were in the supermarket car park (parking lot) and I was really angry and I said, “You need to get in the cart, now!” and she looked at me, confused, and said, “Why did you say ‘cart’?” and then I had to explain that when Mommy gets angry, Mommy uses American words.
Tonight when I was putting her to bed we were talking about one of her nursery friends, Leon. Before nursery this morning she had said, “What?” with a particular intonation and pronunciation that led me to say, “You sound just like Leon when you say that.” (A few months ago there was a conversation between the two kids that had entirely consisted of my daughter jabbering incomprehensibly, to be funny, and Leon saying, repeatedly, “What?”) Anyway, this evening, she said to me, “Leon didn’t say ‘what?’ [today].” I then explained that someone only says that if they can’t understand you. She then said something that I can’t quite remember about Spanish. “Right,” I said, “Like if you were you speaking Spanish.” Then she said, “I not say America.” “Well, you do sound a bit American,” I said. “Mm-hm,” she agreed.
Just under a year ago I blogged about the linguistic consequences of my daughter’s transition from a Scottish family to our family. Now, I am here to tell you that the inevitable has happened. And it kinda breaks my heart!
The first obvious sign was a few weeks ago. My kid was talking to herself and I heard her say, “I’m an American girl.” Since I’ve gone to more pains than most parents (because of our circumstances) to say, “You are Scottish,” I assume that she was described as American by one of her nursery teachers, and I assume that they said that not so much because of her parentage, but because of her accent. She pretty much has an American accent now, or at least the kind of funny slight-hybrid accent that other children-under-5 of American parents in Edinburgh have (yes, I know a lot of these kids). What I mean is, for example, she says tomato in a British way and she hypercorrects flapped intervocalic /d/ to a released /t/ for words like ladder and pedal. But otherwise, she really sounds like she’s growing up somewhere in the US (if you ignore her lexicon).
Alright, fine. This is not surprising. The people I’ve mentioned this to all say, “Oh, just wait until she starts primary school.” Fair enough.
The break-my-heart moment came the other day when she and I were riding in a taxi. Taxi drivers in Edinburgh are the most reliable place to find (a) strong accents and (b) people willing to talk a lot. So, we got into the taxi and started off and the driver started chatting about the weather. My daughter then turned to me and whispered, “He’s speaking Spanish!”
“What?!” my inner voice said (just like Leon). I mean, most of her nursery teachers are Scottish, we keep in touch with her Scottish foster family, and we do have Scottish friends!!! (Okay not many, but we try!!!) Not to mention the exposure she gets just being about town and hearing people. But despite all that, my wee Scot thinks Scots is unintelligible!
I’m guessing this wouldn’t have bothered most parents. But I’m not most parents; I’m a sociolinguist. (Poor kid…)