I love your grandmother's accent," my high school friend told me after a visit to my house.
I looked at her in confusion. "What accent?"
She assured me my grandmother spoke with an accent, although she wasn't sure what kind. I knew Grandma's parents had come from Norway, but it had never occurred to me that she had an accent. She just spoke like Grandma. The next time she came to our house, I tried to listen to her words more objectively. Sure enough, all those round, musical vowels of hers weren't just her unique way of talking; she had a Norwegian accent.
It made me wonder what else I hadn't realized about my relatives, just because I knew them too well to see them clearly. A few years later, my friend Sue gave me a clear reminder of how easy it can be to take things for granted.
Sue's husband, Daniel, had come to the United States from Kenya. They had met and married in Minnesota. When their son, Jeff, was born, they decided that Sue would speak to him in English and Daniel in Kikuyu, so that he would be bilingual right from the start. The plan worked well, and Jeff spoke both English and Kikuyu with ease from an early age.
WHEN Jeff was seven years old, several members of Daniel's family came from Kenya for a visit. Sue and Daniel were thrilled. Wouldn't they be proud when Jeff conversed freely with his relatives in Kikuyu! They explained to Jeff that Daddy's family would be coming to stay with them, and Jeff eagerly helped them plan activities for their visitors. He seemed excited to have them come.
At the airport on the big day, Daniel greeted his family and introduced them to his wife. Then he proudly introduced his son in Kikuyu and waited for the conversation to begin. But as soon as the relatives started speaking to Jeff, he stared at them in surprise and clammed up. He wouldn't say a word to anyone in any language. Daniel's family tried to be polite, and Daniel assured them Jeff really did know how to talk, but the conversation on the way back to the house was a little strained, with Jeff remaining absolutely silent.
It wasn't until Daniel got everyone home and settled that he had a chance to talk with his son and find out what had upset him. Jeff had never met anyone else who spoke Kikuyu, only his dad. All his life, Jeff had assumed that this was a special, secret language between him and his father that no one else knew. And then all these strangers had shown up, speaking their private language! It had been a shock.
Once Daniel had explained the situation to Jeff, the boy slowly came around and began speaking to his relatives. They were pleased with his facility in Kikuyu, and the visit turned into a very pleasant one.
But for a while, Sue wondered if something precious had been lost for Jeff, even when the relatives returned home and Jeff and Daniel had Kikuyu to themselves again. After all, it was no longer their own special language.
Then came the evening when Jeff stood in the choir at his school play. Many children in the choir started squirming as they waited on stage between songs, including Jeff.
Sue observed as Daniel caught his son's eye and slowly tightened his mouth at one side. Jeff smiled and pulled himself up to stand straight and still.
They still had their own language, she realized, even if it wasn't Kikuyu.