Say What?

Can you believe that we’re days away from our four-month anniversary of moving? I certainly can’t. In some ways, it seems we’ve been here forever. In others, it’s like we arrived yesterday. This strange limbo also hit while we lived in Germany, so I’m expecting it to last a while.

Today, I want to talk about changes. Living in a new culture will do that to you – you’ll change little by little, while certain aspects of your upbringing and background will always remain. Maybe the things that stay will even become more obvious because of the changes.

Specifically, though, today is about those shifts in language that happen when living abroad. You’d be surprised how fast you’ll pick up changes to your accent. I spoke to a friend recently who said she’d noticed this change in pronunciation after a vacation to another country, so imagine how far-reaching it can be with prolonged exposure. That sounds like a biohazard. 🙂

In Germany, these changes weren’t that obvious, at least not at first. Then, one day, I realised my Afrikaans was suffering due to my German-learning. Had I learned German in South Africa, where I’d still have been in practice with constant Afrikaans speaking, reading and writing, I doubt the effect would have been so obvious. But now, I was living in a foreign country, where we spoke Afrikaans only at home (and English to Kayla) while every other conversation either took place in German or English.

Of course this meant my German and English were both getting stronger. Yes, English too. When you have to express an idea to someone whose first language isn’t English, and they didn’t understand the words you used initially, you have to think on your feet and find synonyms. Fast. Considering English is also my second language, that got interesting quickly. But my English speaking noticeably improved. I was reminded again that writing and speaking are two different skills, and while my writing wasn’t bad, the lack of conversations in English showed.

Meanwhile, learning to write in German had a different outcome – my Afrikaans spelling slipped away from me, to the point where I avoid writing in Afrikaans to this day. The Germanification of my spelling even reaches to my English writing – which sucks, because it’s what I do for a living. 🙂 The fact that English is a Germanic language means that some words are just spelt similarly. For some reason, separating the German and English spellings of the same words eludes me – I can’t explain it. Just the other day, my cousin Shants was laughing at me for this very thing. 🙂

Here in Canada, my accent is changing.

Within the first week, we were saying yeah instead of ja. This was a simple leap, and honestly a choice – people understand yeah much better than ja. After making that choice a few times, it just kind of stuck. Then, we had a few instances where we pronounced words in our little accent, but because people didn’t understand, we’d pronounce the word the Canadian way.

In South African English, R’s are under-pronounced. Instead of four, we say something like fouh, and instead of car, cah. You’d be surprised how far a rolled R will go at the endings of a few words to help native speakers understand. Now, when I tell people Kayla is four, that rolled R comes out without any prompting, just to streamline the conversation.

I’ve also noticed the softening and flattening of some sounds while reading my manuscript aloud. It’s really strange to catch myself reading ledder instead of letter, or preddy instead of pretty. The A in apple is much rounder than it used to be, and ‘want to’ becomes wanna. It’s a strange phenomenon, I tell you. I do a double-take, shake my head and reread the word in the way I was taught, picturing my English teacher’s frowny face in the front of my high school English class.

Obviously, Kayla’s accent is changing much faster than ours. She’s picking up this change at school and I’m really glad that she’ll sound like a native in no time. Jan and I will probably have a strange and unique hybrid-accent for the rest of our lives, but I doubt she’ll be picked on for sounding different. The things a mother worries about, eh?

A part of me doesn’t want to lose my accent, which is strange. Is my identity defined by the way I talk? Certainly not. The other part of me has grabbed to these little changes and clutches them as if my life depends on it, if only in the name of being understood.

I also realise that I’m part of a generation that’s going to redefine the Canadian accent. A massive slice of the population in Ontario is made up of immigrants, and Ontario also houses almost 40% of the total Canadian population (and that’s discounting other provinces that also have many immigrants). Take into account that most of those immigrants come from countries where English isn’t the primary language and we’re all bringing our own flair to English pronunciation here in Canada, and we’ll probably end up with something that sounds different in a few decades. Some people aren’t going to like that statement, but I draw heart from it. We’re truly building a new home here, and placing our stamp on this place for the coming generations.

Also, how fabulous is language? It’s such a fluid thing, influenced by history, but also by the present. It changes and evolves as we change and evolve, it learns as we learn. Now really is a good time to work in the wonderful world of storytelling, with a medium that has the ability to absorb all influences and grow because it did.

Have a good week, folks.



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