I learned a new word the other day: bi-dialectical. We’d been watching a show with Gillian Anderson in it, and wondering at why her British accent is so good. Turns out, because she lived between the US and the UK as a child, she has two accents in the same language and can move seamlessly between the two. It got me thinking about our third culture kids.
Though Elliot speaks only basic Swahili, his Tanzanian English and Swahili accent are actually pretty good. It’s a dialect he handles with aplomb. And it’s a recognisable dialect. His other dialect — the one he uses at school and in our family — is some weird combo, unique to him and his TCK experiences.
He doesn’t sound like Arthur and me. People comment on this to us when we’re in Australia. They used to ask if there was some kind of English influence. He has now also added an American twang, thanks to his new school. While South Aussies say ‘school’ something like ‘scul’ and eastern states Aussies say ‘scoool’, he says the word with two syllables: scoo-ul.
It never occurred to me to see if Elliot could do an Australian accent, but we found out yesterday.
We were sitting with some American friends, and one of the other kids attempted an Australian accent. As everyone was laughing, Elliot had a go too. He knew to add ‘mate’ on the end, but his Australian accent was terrible. Like a bad impersonation. It’s not just that he doesn’t speak with an Australian accent: he can’t!
But here was the big realisation for me: he knows his accent is not Australian. He may not be able to label the accent he does have, but an Australian accent is not natural to him and he’s aware of that. It’s something he has to affect, or have a go at. So when it came time to do Australian accents, he was in the same boat as everyone else, not using his normal voice.
Even if you were to hear his normal dialect and to think that it basically sounds Australian, that is not how he perceives himself. He does not identify the way he speaks with Australia. People who are un-like him speak with Australian accents.
My TCK is waking up to the fact that he is between worlds. At the moment, he’s pretty confident about his ability to move between them; he told me he’ll be fine on home assignment “because we’ve visited Australia lots of times now, Mama.” But see how Australia is a place we visit? Like an accent you put on, it’s a thing you do for a little while, possibly something you get better at the more you do it. But it’s still something he assumes, not what he lives and breathes and oozes. At six years old, he knows that about himself.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.