English is taught in schools here from first class so it’s no wonder they are all great at it by the time they are big people. The main language focus is of course on Norwegian but still, they slowly but surely build up competence in English as well from the age of six. My son is eight and in third class. Right now, they are learning how to write the English words for numbers (it’s eight and not ate) and make their own little English picture books on the iPad. His lovely Swedish teacher told me recently that she enlists his help in English to keep him engaged but also to ‘make use of him’ because he has fluent English. And of course, he is loving it. He apparently helps with pronunciation of words and reading texts. He had a very British accent when we moved here but after 4 years, I think it’s safe to say it’s more Irish English than anything now.
I’ve always found accents fascinating, going way back to when my American cousins used to visit us in Ireland when we were kids. We spoke the same language but their English was all smooth and rounded in sound as it flowed off the tongue. Our West of Ireland accent on the other hand was much more angular and broad, a different kind of music altogether. When people speak fluent English as a second language, their accent tends to be greatly influenced by their mother tongue; think of Macron and Merkel and how different they sound when they speak fluent English.
As always, there are exceptions. I remember some years back, I had a lovely Portuguese colleague in London called Victor. Victor spoke English with a perfect American accent. The remarkable thing was that, even though his pronunciation of ‘awesome’ was right up there with the best of them, he’d never been to America. His great Americanese came from watching American TV when he was growing up. He learned English at school in Portugal but his manner of expressing himself came from across the Atlantic, it was American English that his ear tuned into, to enable his own English expression.
Most Norwegians speak English with a barely audible accent. I’ve come across a few people who speak English with an American accent but after Victor, I no longer ask if they are American or have even been to America. When it’s not your first language, in my experience, it’s not of huge relevance what your accent is as long as you can get your point across. In Ireland, I’m proud of my accent and the region of Ireland it represents. Here in Norway, when I speak Norwegian, all I care about really is that it’s good enough to be understood. My biggest enemy is a look of total bewilderment on the face opposite me because a) I’m using the wrong words or b) I’m using the right words but my pronunciation is rubbish or c) I’m open-mouthed but using no words as they’re just not coming. All are of equal frustration.
There was one memorable day last year when I was working in a bank and a Swedish gentleman asked me on the phone, “Är du från norra Norge?” or, “Are you from Northern Norway?”. He knew my accent was a bit strange and couldn’t quite figure it out so he placed me in the beautiful north somewhere. I can’t remember when exactly this happened (it could well have been on June 29th at 3.15pm now that I think about it…). Come on, I was mistaken for a local, that’s as BIG a deal as any integrating migrant can hope for. It may never happen again, but at least I had the once…
After years in London, my Irish accent has softened greatly, I think that this happens automatically through sheer everyday immersion in a version of the language that has a different melody and emphasis. The funny thing is that when I go back home, it’s clear that nothing’s been lost. My own strong accent just lies latent and comes back with a flourish when I sit down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, talking to my family.
I’m proud to say that the husband speaks English with a fine Irish accent at this stage and has confused many when introducing himself as a German. He lived in Ireland for 3 years and has also had the best of Irish teaching and coaching for many years from yours truly here. Recently, he had a work encounter here where he was explaining, in English, a scenario they had come across and used the good Irish expression, ‘chancing your arm’ in the middle of it. The Norwegian guy sitting across the table looked nervously at his arms and was clearly wondering what on earth they had to do with anything. After some clarification, the guy was left in no doubt that the source of this great expression, and in fact much wisdom really, was none other than The Irish Wife.
It stands to reason that our kids speak English with an Irish accent now, as they hear Irish English at home here every day and the only place they speak English is at home. So, when our boy is standing in front of his class reading an English poem, as he apparently did last week, the version of fluent English his classmates hear is an Irish one.
What I wonder sometimes is, if there is indeed a small chance that his little army of multicultural classmates will be talking English in years to come and have some people with finely-attuned ears asking them if they have spent time in Ireland. Because maybe, as they speak English, there will be some slightly detectable Irish pronunciations to their English words. I guess true integration is about adapting and also influencing your new environment through sharing who you are and where you’ve come from.
The fact that this little boy, who spoke perfect British English but now speaks Irish English when pronouncing words for his classmates, despite the fact that he’s never lived in Ireland, is something I find both amusing and fascinating in equal measure.