When the First Language Becomes the Second Language

No, this is not a post about how I am afraid that Alex is starting to forget English now that he is immersed in Spanish at school three days a week. It is a post about how children subconsciously alter the way they speak their first language when they are in their second language environment.

All the kids at Hansei learn English as a foreign language, starting in pre-K. (I believe Korean is also an option when they get older.) Today, we attended an English open house at Hansei. All the kids participated — the younger grades sang songs, while the older grades put on plays and did poetry readings. Alex’s Kindergarten class sang several songs, like “There Was a Farmer Had a Dog,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” and “The Hokey Pokey,” complete with actions and motions. At first, Rusty and I noticed that the other kids were looking to Alex, rather than their teacher, to know what to do. Which I guess is probably normal, as he is not only a full year older, but also a native English speaker.

But then, we realized that he had adopted a very Latino accent in the way he was pronouncing certain words like “little” (LEE-tell), and “goodbye” (GUDE-bai). I was thoroughly amused by this, and it reminded me of a similar time in my own life when I spoke English with a perfect Kenyan accent…

When I was in first grade, I was chosen to recite a poem for an end-of-the-year program at my school, Victoria Primary School, in Kisumu, Kenya. I practiced my poem at home for weeks in my normal accent (and to this day, I still remember the first verse of it by heart), but when the time came for me to stand up and recite, I did it like a Kenyan. My mom says if she had closed her eyes, she would never have known it was her own daughter standing up there. Of course, my parents were in fits of laughter, and trying to hide their faces behind the people in front of them so I wouldn’t see and become flustered. I was blissfully unaware of all of this. I finished reciting my poem and left the stage.

Later, on the way home, my mom asked me to recite my poem again. I obliged, of course in my American accent. She said, “No, I want you to recite it like you did at the school.”

I was confused. “That is how I recited it at the school,” I said. I had absolutely NO IDEA what I had done or why the fact that I had used a Kenyan accent in a situation that OBVIOUSLY called for it was so very funny to my parents. Years later, of course, I can see the humor in it, and that is partly what made hearing Alex do a similar thing so funny today.

One of the great benefits of growing up a TCK is the exposure to other languages. And, additionally, the exposure to other ways of speaking a language (other accents, different words for the same thing, etc.). I find that I am a sort of chameleon when it comes to accents. Leave me in a certain place long enough, and I will start to adopt the local accent. In the South, I start to drawl and say words like “ya’ll,” and up North, I order “pop” and speak through my nose. But I do find that I can more readily understand different accents than a person who has spent their entire life in one geographic location. And I’m better able to understand ESL speakers with heavy accents.

It seems that Alex, for his part, is well on his way to becoming an “accent chameleon” like his mother!

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