Friday, September 28, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Speaking American English

I know what my children's English teachers would say, hearing American-accented English:
"Don't try this at home, kids" or "Only while operating heavy machinery"--in which case the accent that those teachers still say sounds like chewing gum is forgivable.  
It all started back when the English King George, frustrated at having lost the revolutionary wars, complained that he'd "just wanted to give them a few bloody noses."  And after those ragtag Americans instead gave his redcoats a few bloody noses and then presumed to write that Declaration of Independence . . . well, The Empire fought back, grabbing India and all the parts of Africa undefended by the Belgians and the French, and the sun never sat on the British Empire until the twentieth century rolled around, but even though it did roll around and even though Colonialism is considered "post" in all reputable universities, the majority of German schoolteachers have absorbed the colonial jingoism about language.  A plummy Mayfair accent is music to their ears.  The dulcet sound of Manhattan is not.  When my oldest son came home from first grade saying, "Mummy, I'm packish," I said, "First of all I'm MOMMY, no mummies around here.  Mummies are dead people wrapped in bandages stored at the bottom of pyramids.  Second of all, you mean 'peckish' not 'packish,' and third of all nobody will understand you back home in New York, where you have to say that you are hungry."  He grinned.  I'd given it all away.  Here was a new way to torment Mommy, who would get called "Mummy" until she refused to answer to it.  And until he and his brother and his sister got annoyed because the teachers kept telling them that "color" had a "u" in it and that they should not say "better," with the "r" properly pronounced, but "bettah."  Then I heard a great deal of "Mommy, I was so bored I put my head down on the desk."  Now, the situation probably worsened during the dark days of the rule of George Bush, the son, that is.  During those dark days I was on the tram one day with my children, speaking to them in English, when a German guy asked if I were American.  Anticipating the typical line, "I have an aunt in Florida--do you know her?" I acknowledged my citizenship, and he said, "Thank you for the bombs over Baghdad."  I snapped to attention, my stop coming up fortunately, and as I pushed the stroller out toward the platform and beckoned for the other to kids to come quick, gave him a piece of my mind:  "I did not vote for George Bush!  I hate George Bush!"  To which he replied--ironically?  Seriously?  I wish I knew: "Ja, my grandma did not vote for Hitler."  Once the children were safely on the platform I realized what must have set him off.  My middle child, then five, had wanted a T-shirt with a flag on it to wear during soccer season, and all I'd been able to find was one with a post-September 11 flag, accompanied by some remark so patriotic that I've repressed it.  No wonder the guy on the tram thought I was the type to like George Bush.  Now, I had taken that T-shirt out of the drawer, had indeed had second thoughts, namely, "I don't like this kind of in-your-face flag waving," and then I'd told myself, "Don't be paranoid.  You're living in a small German city.  What could possibly happen?"  Well, this is what could happen.  Have attitudes toward American accents changed since Obama?  Not that I've noticed, except in universities.   Germans love to put things in categories.  The eighth grade does do a unit on "American" English, and the idea that there are separate accents that can be taught, relatively stable accents that are as immune to change as a date in history, perseveres.   Once, right here in this small city at the university where I teach,  I examined a student who spoke very good English with an accent that was mostly American--Manhattanish--touched by a slight Irish lilt.  One of the other examiners wanted to give her a bad grade because her accent was "a mix" of Irish and American.   So I threw a big American fit.  Over my dead body, I said.  She speaks very good English.  But change--the idea that language is always on the move, like culture, like populations, like life--that's a tough one for the average German schoolteacher, who is, as I write, still irritating my fifth grader with the notion that a "truck" is called a "lorry."

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