Mind the Gap: Raising Kids Who Are Bilingual in English & American-English

By ERIN MOORE

 

LONDON–The first time an American tourist hears “Mind The Gap” on the London Tube, it sounds odd. We have no similar locution in American English. Americans would sooner say “watch out” than “mind.” And “gap” hardly seems an adequate description when the train doors slide open and the distance to the platform in some stations is wide enough to lose a whole family in.

When I first visited England almost 20 years ago, I was also charmed by the use of “Way Out” in place of “Exit” because it captured the exhilarating and strange feeling of moving to a place where I could take nothing for granted. To a student abroad for the first time, without friends or family, everything seemed “way out.” Now that I’ve lived and worked in London for the better part of a decade, these signs have stopped seeming foreign. But judging by how often I am mistaken for a tourist, asked how long I am staying or when I am going “home,” I myself seem just as foreign as ever.

Until I left America, I never realized how American I was in every word, attitude and mannerism—or that a common language would not be enough to bridge the gap between American and English culture. For a while, that gap seemed big enough to lose myself in. What happened instead was that I had my first child, a daughter, and she has been filling the space ever since.

Before she was born, my husband and I imagined we would be raising an American child in London, but we were wrong; we are raising an English child. Our daughter experiences England as her primary culture. At 2 1/2, she began to take on the accent of her peers and not her parents. She drinks wohtah. She asks for biscuits, not cookies. She wears trainers and jumpers, not sneakers and sweaters. She walks on pavements, not sidewalks. She studies maths. But it doesn’t stop there—if only it were that simple.

Seemingly superficial differences in accent and word choice will mark her for life–not just as an English child, but as an English child with a certain background and education, from a particular city. Each time she speaks, she will be judged by other English people. They will instantly and subconsciously classify her in a way that they cannot class American-English speakers like her father and me. So, whether we like it or not, we have to learn and pay attention to these distinctions ourselves, in order to make sure that our children don’t adopt accents or words that might hold them back.

In the musical My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins avers that “these verbal class distinctions by now should be antique,” but tellingly, he means that everyone should be taught a “good” accent, rather than that people should cease to classify one another according to how they speak. He teaches a flower girl to “code-switch”—to change the way she expresses herself in order to fit in—in her case, to a higher class than that to which she was born. Unfortunately, this aspect of life in England has not changed as much since the 1960s as one would wish. The BBC may no longer insist on Received Pronunciation (news readers with genuine regional accents are favoured now), but in social life and in the job market, a standard English accent is still considered an advantage.

Ideally I would like to give my daughter the tools to become expert code-switcher. I don’t want her to buy into the snobbery about language and accent, but rather become skilled enough to transcend it, to use her “bilingualism” to her advantage. I’d like her to become fascinated by the way people speak, so that controlling the impression she herself makes with language feels like a game.

 

This matters to me in part because I am terrible at code-switching and I know my own fish-out-of-water feeling is here to stay. Affecting an accent or certain British locutions would be inauthentic for a person from small-town Florida. I admit that I have become more American than the Americans. exaggerating my American accent, American style, and American word choices. It is my identity, a choice made out of pride in where I come from, but also, lately, out of a desire for my daughter and her new baby brother to be exposed to my culture, language, and accent. I want them to be able to go back to America if they choose and not feel, or seem, as foreign as I do in my adopted country. But I also do this because I would not be capable of anything else.

One feature of the London accent my daughter developed at her nursery school is a v sound instead of a th sound, so that words like “the” and “those” become “va” and “vose.” Some of my husband’s English family are dismayed, but I’m not bovvered. In her new primary school, phonics lessons include small mirrors, so that the girls can practice sticking their tongues through their teeth on the th sound. Anne has already informed me that it isn’t rude to stick out your tongue when you say “the.” She is learning “proper” British English, one sound at a time, and preparing for her life as a bilingual Anglophone.

Erin Moore is the author of the recently published book..”that’snot English”  an exploration of English and American cultural differences through the lens of language. She grew up in Key West, Florida, and is a graduate of Harvard who also attended King’s College, London. She lives in London.