Last night I went to the class meeting for my older daughter’s new class. Over the course of the meeting, I asked a couple of questions. Today, my daughter came home upset, because the father of a girl in her class said that I “talk French funny”. Now I am presuming that he was referring to the fact that I am Canadian (and anglophone) and so I don’t always have a “standard” French accent. Frankly, I was pretty irritated that I had to defend my French skills to my daughter, and give her a mini-lesson on accent and language use.
Shortly after this, I was having a conversation with another Mum at swimming, and she recounted her lunch hour trauma at her boys’ school. She went in as a volunteer lunch supervisory, and had some behavior problems from the kids in the class. As she was explaining to them why she wasn’t happy, one kid put up his hand and told her that “she doesn’t speak very good Dutch” (she is Italian). Needless to say, she was both hurt and offended.
Which leads me to a point that I make in every parent seminar that I do. When we live in a multilingual world, every comment and criticism we make about language, language use, speakers of other languages is a learning situation for our children. If we comment on someone’s accent, it cues in to our children that accent is important, and somehow hierarchical. Our children learn their attitudes about language mostly from us – if we show a good example of inclusiveness and acceptance, chances are our children will pick that up. If we evaluate, criticize or categorize, our children will do the same.
So, we all have a responsibility to think carefully about how we speak of other languages, other languages speakers, other accents before we make a comment in front of our children about how someone speaks a language that is not their own. After all, an accent is not inherently a negative thing – it’s marker of where in the language world we come from, a marker of our culture and heritage and above all, an indication that we are making an effort to speak a language that we are not a native speaker of. Surely that should be lauded and not criticized?
(Yes, I am a bit hot under the collar about this…)