Teachers With Terrible Accents Are Making My Daughters Sound Like Eliza Doolittle
Savvy travelers at ages four and two, my daughters have amassed their share of party tricks. Counting to 20 in Mandarin, for instance. Rapping the first two verses of Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind. Dancing the hula. But when we visit home (Toronto) from our base in the UK, their most popular request is simply speaking. Something about toddlers with British accents drives the New World absolutely wild.
But there’s a hitch. We live in one of London’s most deprived boroughs, popularized by Eastenders, Jack the Ripper and the city’s recent race riots. We love it here; the public schools are good and locally staffed (a mixed blessing, you’ll soon realize), the services are excellent and there’s a community spirit that eclipses that of other, more prosperous neighborhoods. Yet the native accent can fairly be described as “nouveau Eliza Doolittle.” Many locals – nursery employees included – consider the vernacular a badge of honor; some out-of-borough personalities (Jamie Oliver and Lily Allen, to name two) even put it on a little. Take a city bus, however, and listen to the gangs of teens hurling mockery across the top deck and you find yourself thinking: these kids are not giving themselves the best start in life.
My relatives find it adorable that my daughters sound like understudies for the West End version of Oliver!, but my husband and I are increasingly vexed by their lazy truncations and glottal stops. Where we once imagined setting off for school with a pair of mini-Hermione Grangers in straw boaters and pinafores, articulating in the distinguished cadence of the Queen, we now get:
“Mummaaaie!” from one of them, enquiring after the whereabouts of her sippy cup. “Where’s me woe’ah?”
“I need ya,” the other one will holler from the toilet, “to wipe me bo’om!”
Those times they manage to catch us cringing, they’ll play it up.
“I ain’t a baby no more,” my eldest argued last week, almost winking.
Fellow parents in the ’hood have similar stories, which they relate with a combination of amusement and please-tell-me-she’ll-be-over-this-by-puberty anxiety. Like the friend whose daughter returned home from school on her birthday and declared: “I’m free, innit?” (Translation: “I’m three, you know.”)
Readers: I know what you’re thinking. Oh just shut up, you elitist, classist, aspirational xenophobe.
In a minute. First I ask you to consider the legions of families who worry their children will forever ape the accent of the Caribbean or Filipina nanny. Or the Arizona Department of Education initiative to remove schoolteachers who speak in heavily accented English. Or Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who took elocution lessons ahead of her marriage to William.
Ironically, some of the only public-school students taught the Queen’s English these days are newcomers to Britain, whose English as a Second Language teachers are chosen for their refined accents. What will happen to London’s racial tensions when first-generation Britons start articulating themselves like BBC announcers and pedigreed Brits go for the Full Ali G?
Is it really wrong to wish for your child a crack at the real thing (if not Received Pronounciation, then the less lofty form of British English known as Estuary English) before they grow up and take the inevitable shortcuts?
Or, in this increasingly small world, destined for domination by Chinglish, Globish and any number of new dialects, am I simply being naïve?