Mom in a Mum’s World: The Zebra Conundrum

expat issues, language 17 Replies

This book stresses me out:


photo 1 (7)

It’s Peppa Pig’s first sleepover, and in heavy rotation in Hushpuppy’s favorites. It gives me a little pit in my stomach every time because I can’t avoid naming the sleepover hosts, the Zebra family. And by the Zebra’s, of course, I mean the Zeb-ruhs. Or, do I mean the ZEE-bruhs? It’s so hard for me to decide.

Now that Hushpuppy is picking up an astounding number of new words, I am starting to find the Zebra Conundrum an unavoidable and daily minefield. There are numerous words that we Americans and Australians either pronounce differently or use different expressions, altogether. For instance, this week we were out and passed a BP station. Hushpuppy pointed at the building and asked, “that?”.

“Gas station,” I told her. “I mean, petrol station.”

Or, this: photo 2 (5)

Every time we get to J in Bananas in Pajamas (sorry, Pyjamas), I take a tiny inhale and deceitfully change “jelly” to “Jell-o.” I did the same with a book we borrowed from the library that talked about a “lady bird.” I changed it to “ladybug” every time.

When I’m speaking to Australians, I’m pretty good about changing my language from Yank to Aussie, but it feels odd to do so when speaking to my nearest and dearest. Like a fraud. Or, a even a betrayal.

But, I always wonder if I’m doing Hushpuppy a disservice by not familiarizing her with the words that her colleagues and teachers will certainly say when she gets to school. Will they laugh or even scold her the first time “ZEE-bruh” rolls off of her sweet and unsuspecting lips? I was asking Partner-in-Crime his opinion the other day and his suggestion was that she’ll learn the Aussie way from exposure, and that there’s no need to change our way of speaking. “She’ll be bilingual!,” he said.

I suppose that makes sense to me. Children who grow up actually bilingual learn both languages without much trouble. I’m no expert in child language development, but it seems like the same principle ought to apply here.

So, I think I’ve decided on continuing to use the words and pronunciations that are comfortable for me – my “mother tongue,” if you will, and trust that Hushpuppy will sort it all out without too many problems. So, at home, jelly is still going to be the stuff we spread on peanut butter sandwiches and Peppa is going to continue to visit the ZEE-bruh family … and, for the record, Zebra is going to start with a zee, instead of a zed.

Seychelles Mama

17 thoughts on “Mom in a Mum’s World: The Zebra Conundrum

  1. Linda Higgs

    I learned to speak English in a home with two parents who spoke English with significant German accents. I, however, didn’t learn to speak English with a German accent. l always wondered why. I guess that the environment outside of the home is more significant in shaping the way we speak. You’ll find this out as Hushpuppy learns more and more oral language.

    1. Cristin Post author

      I think that must be true, as I know of many American expats here saying that their children have Australian accents.

    1. Cristin Post author

      I don’t doubt it, though I think it will break my heart just a tiny bit. It’s almost like our own special language.

  2. Mum's Hideout

    I’m from the UK and currently living in UAE. I worked with a lot of Americans and Canadians and frequently had this conundrum (about other words, I don’t think I encountered ‘Zebra’ in a work situation!). At first, I found myself adapting so that when talking to an American I would use the word they would use, e.g. cellphone instead of mobile. The thing is, I think colleagues actually found it weird as they knew that wasn’t the version of the word I would use. After a while, I decided to stick with what I was comfortable with, just like you. It seemed more authentic.

    1. Cristin Post author

      It’s funny how you come across this when you’re dealing with the same language! I don’t mind switching when I’m talking to Aussies, but thankfully, I don’t get (too much) grief if I forget.

  3. Nicole

    It’s funny seeing which accents your children pick up. I’m always amazed that my small person (Ava 4) has more of an English accent (like her dad’s) when he’s at work all day! Ha! (I blame Peppa Pig)…Now I notice there’s a little bit of American/filipino accent creeping in from her school here in China. Nice to come across your blog. I hope you’re enjoying Sydney!

    1. Cristin Post author

      I am DEFINITELY starting to hear the Peppa Pig influence in my daughter’s speech as well!
      Thanks, we adore Sydney!

  4. Cathy

    Cristin, this is a great post and I think you are doing the right thing. I’m Australian, my husband is British/ Italian and our children when they speak English pronounce things in both ways, sometimes with Australian pronunciation and other times with English and then we they speak Italian they sound like native speakers even though we only lived there for 6 years 🙂

    1. Cristin Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. It’s been a few months since I wrote this one, and my daughter is definitely showing signs of picking up both sets of words/accents. I think she’s going to be a seamless go-betweener, too!

  5. laura

    This was a really fun post. She will probably have a little bit of both of your accents, it will be one of her takeaways from this experience. Thank you for sharing your sweet story.

    1. Cristin Post author

      I think you’re right! We all have Aussie-isms that I think we’ll carry with us forever. To throw another wrench in, my husband is European, so carries even a 3rd accent, but that doesn’t seem to have much impact on her, so far.

  6. Seychellesmama

    This has brought a smile to my face! It’s massively taken me back to my time in America where we dealt with the same thing (well, the opposite I guess!) I used to insist in my English class on using the English versions of everything daring her to correct me (so rebellious….!) however speaking with friends I’d slip into full on “American”

    It’s almost like a mini version of being bilingual!!

    Thanks so much for joining in with #myexpatfamily

    1. Cristin Post author

      Thanks for having me!
      Yes, I’ve heard of older kids who seamlessly go back and forth between accents. So interesting how our language develops and forms us.

  7. Jen @ 4,128 miles

    Ooh that’s a tough one. I think children sound more like their peers so whatever is said at home is important, but not always what they’ll end up saying themselves. You have to speak in your ‘mother tongue’ – that’s who you are and little ones need to grow up knowing it’s always OK to be who you really are. Ha, ha – perhaps I’m getting a bit carried away, but you know what I mean!

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