You’re gonna wanna read this

June 01, 2012 By: erik Category: Geeky, Musings, Offspring, Parenting, USA, Weird 361 views

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Gonna WannaChildren 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.

  • You’re blog posts fascinate me. Great ponderings, as usual!

    • Thanks, Erin!
      It really irks me that pondering is not a noun. I find myself wanting to use it as a noun several times a year.

      • Kristin

        English is fluid. Start a revolution. Use ‘pondering’ as a noun. Let’s all do it. 🙂

  • Lee

    This morning, we had a teachers’ meeting in one of the places I work. Among other items on the agenda, we were discussing the mistakes our students make and that they never seem to correct, our own mistakes in Spanish and other related topics. (NO ONE in Madrid, nativo o guiri, uses le/la/lo correctly.)  And the going to/wanna stuff is something that has to be corrected early in life (though the way you use it is not at all wrong. They really are two different phrases. ) 

  • Kaley

    So true — I just gave Mario a quiz on this. Ha!

    In Spanish there are some mistakes that make you sound more native, like saying “Dile a tus padres” instead of “Diles a tus padres” or “Si hubiera sabido, hubiera …” instead of “Si hubiera sabido, habrí­a …” or leí­smo, of course.

    • The most common one I hear is even worse than those, Kaley: “Si hubiera sabido, habí­a …” or just “Yo habí­a bailado” when they mean “Yo hubiera bailado”. The whole conditional bit is ignored.
      It turns out, however, native speakers are not very appreciative of corrections from guiri immigrants.

  • Lee

    But, the third conditional is pretty messed up all over the planet. How many times have I heard, “If I would have known, I wouldn’t have…”etc. People throw “would” around like some magic fairy dust that will turn any sentence into the conditional (and to be fair, they pick it up from their untrained, underpaid English profs…)

  • Fascinating! I just met a young guy around my age who is Spanish, born an raised in Valencia, but his American mom did a great job because he sounds 100% native. It is interesting because I have other friends with American mothers who don’t speak English naturally at all. Sounds like your daughter is on the right track!

  • Kristin

    I have much more difficulty with accented English than with foreign languages; for some reason my ear can tune to native intonation of a foreign language far better than if I’m trying a Glaswegian or Geordie. I sound like a jerk when attempting anything British or Aussie yet somehow I can pull off Northern Ireland.

    A good number of the kids at TASIS (where I taught in Switzerland) had never been to America, yet had attended American schools so spoke American English with all the slang and laziness and dropped t’s. It will be interesting to see if Nora’s intonation changes at all once she begins traveling to America and picking up new phrases.