laura ferrario

How Come You Tawk Funny?

laura ferrario

Linguistic differences can be as varied as size, height or skin color, and enriching as differences in geography, climate or culture. Yet as a parent and teacher, I have been saddened when accents are the basis or excuse for prejudice. “Jose talks funny,” or “Mary has a lisp,” is sometimes enough to ostracize a child who is otherwise bright and charming. So I decided to do some attitude adjusting in the classroom.

But I am first and foremost a teacher who conveys information. So I began by discussing the meaning and purpose of language, such as the need to record information, express feelings and thoughts, instruct and inform, and so on. We explored and speculated on how language came about, such as the onomatopoetic (bow‑wow), imitative (ding‑dong) or grunt theories.

We then came to the discussion of little brothers or sisters who were learning to talk, examining the process of learned speech, a true miracle in which a child is expected to connect the sounds from the throat, lips and tongue to form a particular sound that represented something entirely unrelated. “Why does C-A-T mean a four-legged small animal that purrs? Why didn't they choose Z-Z-Y to represent that particular animal?” I ask. “Certainly that sounds more like what a cat does. And while we're on the subject, who decides that the sounds made from these particular letters would be pronounced the same by everyone who knew that word?  How did standardization come about? More basically, how does a three-year old process that information? Why is it easy for first grade Kim but impossible for college bound John to learn Chinese?” Wonderfully, discussion was lively.

I then shifted to their more immediate surroundings. “Why does the Spanish person who works at the local store have difficulty pronouncing certain sounds? Why do the Chinese have trouble with the ‘R’ sound?” That led to discussing the physical nature of speech such as heredity, muscle tone and sheer ability, for we all have distinctive talents linguistically. Just as I would never be a successful dancer or my mother a mathematician, so would some persons never lose an accent.

Now that the kids have been softened up, we are ready for real learning to take place, to see how well they could emulate another accent. They were going to pretend they were Spaniards, Southerners or Polish nationals. They would do it by listening to someone speak at home, in the store or on TV and copy it down phonetically, cautioning them not to choose a dramatic performance (such as a play) since these are frequently contrived and unauthentic. They were to write “y’all” instead of “you all,” if transcribing a southerner, or “twain” not “train” if speaking to a young child. They would need to do this carefully, because they would be expected to read it out loud to the class. If done correctly, it would sound just like a southerner, a native Italian or a two year old child speaking. We also discussed what caused the changes and differences in the English language over time, the concept of borrowing, intonation, stress, shortenings and usage. Once more the teacher, I showed how this had also affected spelling and grammar.

By the third day, students had transcribed their conversation dialects and brought them to read aloud in class. It took about two days for the entire class to complete the recitation, for comments were encouraged. They were surprised at how hard this was. Somehow, the tongue got tangled and the lips just wouldn't move the way they should. Could immigrant be having the same problem as they struggled to learn English? Did scorn produce anger or humility?

What they were not told was that I would expect their newly discovered accents to continue as though they were their own speech patterns until the unit has been completed in my class.

You've heard of teachers who blindfold children so they will appreciate how it feels to be blind. In my classroom we suddenly have Southern, Eastern, Polish, Spanish and Oriental accents emanating from Anglo‑Saxon lips. At first it was met with hilarity. By the time the week was over, they had begun to see how strongly each of us identifies with individual language and linguistic sounds. It is our contact with one another. It is who we are.

On the last day, the students were released from their assumed accents and we discussed what they learned. The week has been a lesson in tolerance and appreciation of the American linguistic melting‑pot. It offered a new understanding of spelling and grammar rules which continue to this day. More importantly, it gave them a new understanding of their fellows.

It was only a week of lessons but I saw a change. Children who guffawed and mocked one another were now quietly reflective, having been in the role of an immigrant for even a short time.

Too often we stop at the obvious. Prejudice relates to skin color. But there are other prejudices that need to be addressed, such as being fat, homely or having a speech impediment.

The cook at McDonald's might be a physician from Laos who needs to learn English before receiving his American license. The clerk at Dunkin Donuts might be a teacher. The cleaning lady in the hospital might have been a hotel owner in Viet Nam. Their accents are unfamiliar to us. But they probably think that we also tawk funny.



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