Children are excellent mimics; it’s how we all learn to behave like we do. Everyone has heard the clichéd stories of how a child with verbally abusive parents will invent verbally abusive dialog between his toy dolls, or how a child of smokers will pretend to smoke. I like to think of myself as pretty introspective and self-aware; I know my personal vices and weaknesses. So I was surprised to notice, recently, a behavior in my daughter for which I am completely responsible, but was totally unaware that I was doing it myself.
I am referring to the use of the two verbal phrase contractions gonna and wanna. The phrase “going to” means completely different things in the following two sentences:
I’m going to the market.
I’m going to tell you something.
One of the side effects of learning a foreign languages is that you become acutely aware of when a word in your own language has two different, often subtle, meanings in different contexts. Spanish, of course, is a bad example in this case since it also uses the going-to future construct, but the fact that only one of those phrases can have “gonna” substituted in – and still make sense – is proof of the difference.
The fascinating thing I’ve noticed in my daughter’s speech is that she will only ever use “going to” with the first sentence, and will always use “gonna” for the second. As far as her verbal neurons are concerned, they are two completely different verbs.
Seeing this verbal reflection in the offspring mirror made me realize that I always do that too!
Using common, but not truly text-book proper, contractions like “gonna” and “wanna” is the sign of a truly native speaker. The first lesson in affecting a foreign accent (just ask Sacha Baron Cohen) is to eschew all contractions. Doing only that is enough to make people ask you where you’re from. My wife, for instance, who speaks, reads and writes better English than I do Spanish, uses fewer accepted contractions like “can’t” or “won’t”, and when she does, it sounds odd in some way I can’t cannot put my finger on. I’m sure I sound even more strange when I attempt Spanish contractions.
I find it interesting that, as I type this, my realtime spellchecker is perfectly happy with gonna and wanna. They are so embedded in native English that they are even acceptable, by spellchecker standards, in informal type.
Part of me is annoyed to discover that I don’t speak textbook proper English, but a bigger part of me is pleased to be teaching my daughter speech patterns that will make her sound completely native in American English.