Friday, November 30, 2007

Susan's question

Susan from Crunchy Granola asked me about why I felt a need to intervene in Z.'s pronunciation of "a" (as it's pronounced in "pants" and "hand" and "lap"). I've been thinking it over and I thought instead of burying my response in the comments I'd use it to round out my November posts.*

My first level of answer is that the sound of that particular vowel sound grates on me when I hear it from my own daughter. I haven't intervened in any of the rest of her pronunciation, so I'm not sure why that one is worse than anything else, but somehow, it is.

The first time I noticed her doing it, I thought it must be something that I do, but it's not--I have been paying attention to it now, for months, while she's been in two different daycare classes, and it's just not something that she's picking up at home and presumably it's also not from one particular teacher, though she may have picked it up from one teacher last year and it stuck--though of the two most likely teachers, one has standard American English pronunciation and the other has the remnants of a Trindadian accent, so neither seems to be a real likely source (you can see this has been bothering me a long time.). But whatever--in some way, I'm reacting to that diphthong as both a reflection on my own pronunciation and also as evidence of some kind of linguistic invasion from outside my home.

That vowel sounds foreign to my culture. Immigrant parents must have this with every word that comes out of their children's mouths (Nu, Julia?), so the fact that I am homing in on one sound is pretty nitpicky of me, I admit.

I think the dimension on which it sounds foreign is class. I'll own up to it: to my upper-middle class, mid-Atlantic ear, it sounds uncultured and uneducated. Of course I know that she's 2, but it is my vanity to hope that she comes across as a well-educated, highly literate 2, and that impression falls apart, for me anyway, when she asks to sit in my liap to read a book.

My father, a midwesterner, both schooled himself out of saying "ya" when he moved East and later schooled us, his children, in the correct pronunciation of his hometown (it is Omahaw, not Omahah). He was mildly appalled when I temporarily picked up "ya" during a two-year sojourn in Wisconsin. I think that there is something about hearing both the sounds of your home and the sounds of your aspirations in your children's accents, and I am acting it out for at least the second generation of my family when I cringe as she puts on her piants.

*I didn't manage every day, but I did average one post per day. For an unofficial go, I think that's a success.


kathy a. said...

for what it's worth, i think that weird pronunciations at age 2 are passing. that it's not worth worrying about. they disappear suddenly, and then it is disconcerting that you can hardly remember them anymore.

now i'm remembering various odd pronunciataions -- my mother's lifelong use of "worsh" instead of "wash," for example, but only in reference to laundry. you "worsh" clothes and "wash" faces. peculiar, but none of us inherited that bit of strangeness.

Julia said...

Monkey's pronunciation in the home language is very good, so I am more likely to notice her not saying things right in English or using English constructs in the Old Country language. I correct the latter and figure time will take care of the former. But I earned the right to correct it by taking the time to discuss how each language has the proper grammatical structures and idioms.
And for the record, piants would get me too. :)

E. said...

One of my colleagues, a Linguistics professor who specializes in English accents, recently noted during a lecture that it's a common misconception that children learn pronunciation from their parents. In fact, parents have very little to do with pronunciation since language acquisition primarily takes place outside the family. That's why children of immigrant parents (if they arrive here before the critical age of 6) speak English without an accent.

So the best way to get Z. to stop saying "piants" is to surround her with people who don't say it. (And by "people" I mean not only teachers but also peers.) If the vowel shift has already reached your neck of the woods, though, and many people in the area have adopted it, then there's no real way around the problem unless you plan to move. You may be able to change the way she says individual words (e.g. "Omaha"), but the pronunciation of a vowel across the language is (sadly? fortunately?) out of your control.

As for the class distinctions involved and how they come into being, see Rosina Lippi-Green, English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1997). Previews of this volume are available on Google Books.

S. said...

kathy a., I had a 4th grade teacher who pronounced the name of our city "Worshington." I thought this was because she was from Ohio.

Julia, I don't know that we've talked about the mechanics of language with Z. at all up to this point. We talk a lot about manners and we do a lot of alphabet games, but not grammar or idioms. That will come down the line, I'm sure.

E., I'll have to check out the book! And I'll also have to check out how her peers are pronouncing those words, though I think this particular vowel has been around long enough that it's probably not from her peers: since she was one one of the more verbal kids in the infant-toddler room last year, most of her peers just weren't talking.

Anonymous said...

Young children are able to pronounce almost every possible sound that humans can produce. While they are young, they try out these sounds, and as they grow older they use the ones they hear around them.

A kid that is pronouncing something in a way that may not seem correct to their parents is simply sounding out what they can and figuring out what they can do. If the kid in question doesn't hear that sound around their house or school or where they spend time then it is nothing to worry about.

kabbage said...

My mom was adamant that we were going to grow up clear of the typical Pittsburgh accent (iron is pronounced "ahrrrn", steel is "still") and idioms ("gumbands" instead of rubberbands). She mostly succeeded in achieving generic midwestern accents on her kids, maybe because we lived in an upper middle class suburb with mostly college-educated parents from other areas?

Now it's interesting to see how our accents have changed over the years. One sib lives in the coastal area of a mid-Atlantic state and is the only one of us who actually says, "ayup." The sib who married a Chicago-born spouse and has lived in the Chicago area for 30-odd years has a different accent from the one who went to college in the South. I pick up bits of accents when I'm talking to people and also developed a bit of a southern accent (since lost) after spending a couple of summers in the Carolinas.

I once met a woman who was born & raised in North Carolina but who had no southern accent. She said her accentlessness was due to watching the Andy Griffith show as a kid. She laughed at the accents until her mother pointed out that the girl spoke that way, too. She chose to change!

niobe said...

I was always sad that I didn't have more of the typical accent of my region. There are a few words and phrases where it comes out clearly, but mostly, I speak middle-upper-class standard.

azure said...

You know, I wouldn't worry about this a bit. Be pleased that she's doing well with language acquisition. There are so many things that we, as parents, have to let go and not try to control. Even now, it's great to work on not being concerned with how other people judge you based on your child's behavior (or pronunciation). It's tough! But it's a battle that you will never win.

parent to 4 kids, ages 17-25 who have pulled some doozers. I know one of my kids was in speech therapy and the therapist wanted me to judge whether she was pronouncing something a certain way 50% of the time or 75% of the time. I told her that she was out of her mind.