Your eyes have seen the sun rise on 90 days, you have felt the dust of three months on soft skin. The woman holding you has gathered the days of war in her lungs, and where her memories are now smoke signals not even she knows how to decipher, her hands still tell her brain how to hold your little body so you won’t fall, how to shield you from the world she has fought and conquered and forgotten.
By the nursing home kitchen table she’s got no notion that dark coffee will scold her own mouth, but she moves the cup away from you, ”careful so he doesn’t burn himself.”
Suddenly, her language returns, her voice is the voice of the woman who has been hiding in the back of her heart since the turn of the decade.
She has held so many children safe in her arms, cured the scrapes of playground battles and lulled sobbing nightmares to sleep with lullabies she can’t recall ever knowing.
But holding you in hands that have held rationing cards – knitting needles – dried apple slices and one way tickets – the lady in the back of her heart breaks the surface of forgotten memories, takes a big gulp of air and looks at the world with her own eyes once more.
It’s a Sunday morning, and I’m in bed with a cup of tea.
My Norwegian Language and Text book is laying discarded on the floor. I’ll pick it up in a moment, I think, I just need to sit here a little longer. Slowly, tired hands reach for all the notions I take for granted when I speak, notions I’ve now worked to put names and categories and theories to.
Learning the in depth grammar of your own language is a strange experience. Suddenly you start to question the syntactic structure of every sentence before it leaves your lips. No words are uttered without scrutinising and analysing their semantic meaning, and you start to think about the oddities of the language you grew up with.
One part of me isn’t too sure about all this “thinking”. It wants to keep the intuition of language alive, wants me to not think too hard about anything, really. Another part of me loves it. It feels like mindfullness, like I don’t take any words for granted any more, like I’m actively appreciating every sentence.
Cliched and a little pompous, I know. But for the last 5 years, I’ve been so caught up in “perfecting” my English, so adamant to drop my accent, to never have to stop to look for the right words, that I feel like I’ve neglected Norwegian a bit. Like I’ve shoved her to the back of my mind, given her a ragged blanket and said “I’ll be back for you in a second,” only to forget about her as her tea has gone cold. But now, as I’m revising for this last exam of this degree’s first year, I’m gently untangling the cobwebs from her hair. I’m taking the cup from her hands, refilling it with piping hot tea, and giving her blanket a good airing out.
Norwegian is the language in which my grandmothers sang me lullabies, and my parents wished me luck before every first day of school. I wrote my first stories in her, and read my first books. When something shiny and new came along, I neglected her for a while, thinking this new language was so much prettier, much more interesting and useful, but studying the science behind how she works as a language, has really made me appreciate her again.
The last couple of weeks have been intense, stressful and honestly really nice. The study group have gotten together to exam-revise, and we’ve made sense of a lot of confusion. We’ve read, we’ve asked questions, we’ve done our best. Copious amounts of tea have been consumed, we’ve bickered and gotten frustrated, but we’ve also left with more questions answered than asked. Throughout this year together, we’ve taken on British and American politics, international communication, English language history, a lot of in depth grammar and linguistics; all things we knew embarrassingly little about before starting this course. Now we know a lot and I’m proud of us.
And so when I take my Norwegian exam tomorrow, I may stumble over some questions, because Norwegian is a stubborn language, and with her tongue stuck out, I think she wants to get back at me for leaving her in her corner for so long. I may mess up some verb forms, some tempus and modus-conjugation, maybe confuse “konjunktiv” for “indikativ” or something else with a complicated name. But that’s okay, cause I’ve finally caught up with my language again, and from now on, I’ll make sure we won’t grow apart.
The goal among the international students at my uni was to completely drop our accents to sound like we’d grown up with English birthday songs and ice cream floats.
We wanted to be able to go to any bar, to order any coffee and keep any conversation going for however long a time, only to be able to slip in an “oh, I’m not from England, actually” and watch peoples’ surprise.
We worked so hard to lose our accents, the sound of what we thought was “not enough practice”, not good enough.
Oh, how wrong we were.
Accents are identity just as much as names and clothes and the street corners you crossed on your way to school Your accent’s where you’ve come from, the journey to where you are now, it shows the world you dared to try.
Your accent is your family traditions, the lessons of your mum’s lullabies, the laundry songs of your house, a grandma’s lap, and the courage it took to get on that plane alone.
Your accent is a road map of the people you care about, those who took the time to sit with you while you were learning, who let you spin wonders of the words you didn’t understand and didn’t mind you trying on their pronunciations for size.
Your accent is your home away from home, the amalgamation of all that you are and all that you’ve been.
So instead of dropping our accents, let us celebrate them. For all that we are, and all that we’re yet to learn, and every step along the way.