My father’s diphthong extends his “bye” into multiple syllables. After the initiating “b”—punted forth from his lips—the sound slopes downward, ground-ward, and bounces, before ascending again in an upward arc, where a glottal stop catches it in midair. Some days it is an underhand throw, tossing me forward into the future. Some days it is a hook that snags my clothes as I break free. No matter how much time has passed since I last heard it, it remains in my mind, carved like cuneiform in the crumbling clay of memory.
Also in my memory, a scene (grainy and dim as old film):
My father stands before a ratty gray couch he would have called a davenport, or more accurately, a “da’enport,” the first syllables arched together in a slur. Time renders the image ghostly, but I fill in the details: honey-gold hair rising from his forehead, merging into Vitalis-smoothed waves, a navy button-down shirt tucked into worn work pants of the same hue. I’m sure the clothes are stained with automotive fluids. He is speaking. I can’t picture myself, but I experience the memory viscerally. My muscles tense and I hold my breath for a moment these decades later.
I can’t understand him.
I am five years old, and he is commanding me. Each time he repeats himself he becomes more agitated. I know he wants me to fetch something for him, but his thick accent contorts even words I know into a confusion of foreign sounds. Then there’s another word I have never heard. His frustration grows as syllables fly like boomerangs from his mouth and curve back toward him, achieving nothing. Finally, my mother enters the room, summoned by the increasing volume of my father’s voice. She moves to my side as he speaks once more.
“He’s says it’s on the commode.” She turns to a tall bureau behind her and hands him the desired object. “He calls this a commode,” she says, gesturing to the piece of furniture in explanation.
I release my breath. My father relaxes, too, but bewilderment lingers on his face.
My father’s English isn’t that of a foreigner; his family has been in Vermont for generations. One of sixteen children pulled from school to work the family farm, he has left only for a stint in the military, or as he calls it, “the service.” This relative isolation has preserved the regional peculiarities of his speech, carried here by ancestors from the British Isles.
He has come to live with us for the first time in my life. He and my mother separated while she was pregnant with me, and I barely remember him before this day, except for a vague awareness of turmoil when he visited and an impressive purple sedan in the driveway.
Over the years, my father’s accent softens and he drops many of the eccentricities that pepper his lexicon, as our small Vermont town changes around us. Strip malls and fast food restaurants overtake grazing pastures, Volvos and Saabs crowd out Fords and Buicks, and a more standard variety of English becomes the norm. My ear adapts to my father’s language, and he fills it with tales of his childhood, etching his memories into mine as if I lived them myself. They are stories of rural poverty: the swish of a scythe slicing through tall grass where a snake recently disappeared; clods of mud falling from the roots of a sapling as he swings it at his brother in play; a baked potato smeared with grease that is his meal most evenings.
My early confusion over my father’s language transforms into the realization that his accent distinguishes us from transplants to the area—most of my classmates, teachers, doctors, and friends—everybody who matters. It marks our class, and I quickly learn the assumptions applied to this difference in speech: ignorance and provincialism. Open your mouth and speak like that, and expect to be patronized.
Privately, I work to rid myself of any accent and to distance myself from my father’s dialect. Alone in my bedroom, I read aloud: carefully tonguing each word, separating them into distinct units, stringing together sentences from my favorite books and relishing the poetry of the lines. The first time I watch My Fair Lady, I sit rapt as Henry Higgins circles Eliza Doolittle, speaking about her in third person as one might talk about a child. “It’s ‘aoow’ and ‘gaarn’ that keep her in her place, not her wretched clothes and dirty face,” he says, and with my whole being I nod agreement.
No, that will not be me.
I do not resort to filling my mouth with marbles, but to some extent, I succeed in altering my language. New acquaintances cock their heads and ask, “Where are you from?” commenting on my crisp enunciation. Non-native English speakers appreciate the sharpness of my diction.
I take an interest in other languages. With German-speaking companions, I lean in close as they pronounce “Ich” for me, over and over, air hissing across their palates while I listen and try to copy them. I spend a summer in France, and the children I nanny laugh with glee when my pronunciation fails me, enjoying their role as experts. When I finally get to college on a scholarship, my South American friends and I help edit each other’s papers, theirs in English, and mine in Spanish or Portuguese. Technically, mine are often correct—nobody can find fault with the grammar or spelling. Still, they never seem right. One day, my Spanish teacher holds my paper in the air and announces,“This is perfect. There is nothing wrong with this essay, but it sounds like a six-year-old wrote it. You did not use the passive voice, even once!”
So I struggle to adopt a form that has been drilled out of me. When I tell him the passive construction is considered inferior in English, and some of our grammar programs flag it as wrong, he is incredulous. Because of aesthetic differences like this, my Brazilian friend emits sounds of anguish when I edit sentences she has translated from her Portuguese thoughts into English, gasping as I slash lines that wind serpentine over half a page, long chains linked by commas and conjunctions. She finds no elegance in a style ruled by concision.
“But how can I use ‘moreover?’” she asks. “I really want to use ‘moreover.’”
I study poetry, too. A famous poet gives a lesson on using regional or colloquial language to add character to our work. I try inserting a familiar expression in one of my poems, but he insists I remove it, because ending with a preposition is always wrong. “In Vermont,” I say, “ we ‘get the wood in’ every autumn,” explaining the phrase that encompasses the hauling, splitting, stacking, and tallying as we scramble to amass enough fuel before winter. I discover there is a danger in being too authentic—to imitate the vernacular is one thing, to represent it, another. When my ideas do not meet his approval, my poet-professor calls them “low.” I have met my Henry Higgins, and though I learn from him, I do not fall in love.
Eventually, I become an English teacher.
Before students from all over the world, I draw the anatomy of human speech. I sketch a crude, x-ray view of a face in profile, its mouth exaggerated and large. I outline lips parted over teeth, a tongue funneling from tip to stump, illustrating the formation of an “r” in American English. The tongue, a mass of muscle that shapes our voice into intelligible sound, is a stubborn organ, reluctant to change its patterns. Teaching in Boston, I may mention the non-rhotic “r” common to many English speakers in the region, or I may leave this detail out.
When I teach in public school, my adolescent students express shame and hang their heads as they enter my classroom. They have been biased to believe learning English as a second or third language is a deficit. I teach them the words bilingual and multilingual, and try to explain the benefits of being raised this way: increased gray matter in the brain, a facility with languages, and more. As I prepare to address the entire middle school about our program, a seventh grader whose family is from El Salvador says, “Please, say that word—that word you use—bilingual. I love that word!”
When a ninth grader from Belarus broods over points lost on an essay because of spelling errors and inverted letters, I ask him to write something on the board in Russian. His classmates join him, adding words in Tibetan and Chinese. I stare at swooping, curving lines I cannot decipher. I point out how quickly they have learned not only another language, but another alphabet. I hope this will help their self-esteem, but I know the challenges they will face because of their accents, their imperfect grammar, and their botched spelling, in addition to other forms of discrimination they might encounter.
Advocating for my students feels easy, but accepting my own linguistic history, and the tones and phrases that creep out at times I am tired, distracted, or speaking to someone from Vermont, is not so simple. I encourage my students to continue using their home languages, chiding them when they answer their parents in English, instead of Spanish or Tibetan or Moldovan. I want them to accept themselves and their complex histories, to value their multicultural backgrounds. I want them to be proud as they move between worlds, rather than trying to hide what is different about them and their lives. I haven’t applied the same principles to myself.
In an evening course on linguistic policy, my classmates and I examine the intersection of language with social, economic, and political power. The professor lectures on “non-standard” varieties of English, and she tells us growing up in a home with a different dialect imparts the same benefits as bilingualism. Surprised, I feel the sudden burst of affirmation I have witnessed in my students.
Later, she sends a link to an interactive map of Englishes around the globe. From country to country, we can click on an icon and hear a native English speaker reciting a passage in the accent of his or her region. I am fascinated, and spend hours navigating the world, enjoying the musicality of so many voices speaking with distinct inflections.
When I get to the British Isles, the variety astounds me. From a ringing Irish brogue to the non-rhotic Brits, I hear traces of the many New England Englishes I know so well. I open the link labeled Ulster Scots, or Scots-Irish. In the recording, an old man clips consonants and bends vowels into gentle arcs, his pitch rising and falling like freshly tilled earth. He sounds like my father, in another time and place.
Language carries history, be it of hardship or conquest, and tells stories of contact between peoples. That is its power and purpose—to connect us with others. In the course of that contact, it evolves, borrowing from one or another of the speakers to find common meaning. As my father adjusted his words to be understood by those around him, I have adopted the language of my peers, because that is what serves me in my new community. But in the voice of this stranger, I hear echoes of my own history, untinged by class or shame.
I click again, listening over and over to this man who sounds so familiar. My mind travels across an ocean as I imagine some distant relative in worn work clothes, perhaps swinging a scythe or a sapling, or eating a grease-smeared potato. I wonder what he would call an old bureau in the hallway, or with what name he might dignify a ragged sofa, and I decide: maybe my father’s English was never so bad, after all.
Mindy Haskins Rogers is a certified K-12 ESOL teacher, but she has been taking a break from teaching to write and work on a memoir. She is a member of Grub Street Writers’ community and was a scholarship recipient at Juniper Summer Writing Institute in 2014. She holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Smith College, an A.A. from Greenfield Community College, and a TESOL Certificate from The School for International Training. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and child. You can follow her on twitter @mhaskinsrogers or on Instagram.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others