My Mother’s Tongues



Today, February 21, is the International Mother Language Day. We all know that a “Mother Tongue” isn’t necessarily the same as ” a Mother’s Tongue”. In my case it both is and isn’t. My mom was bilingual, but I only learned one of her languages.

When I was a child, the only language spoken to me was Finnish. It was also the language of the community where I lived and the only one used at my school. It wasn’t, however, my mom’s only mother tongue. Her first language, the one that she used with her mother as my Finnish-speaking grandfather sailed the seas for weeks on end, was Swedish, the other official language in Finland. Growing up I always heard my mom speak Swedish to grandma, during frequent visits and daily phone calls, and still today I remember the distinct feeling of being an outsider in my own family as I didn’t understand what they said.  This continued later as I learned Swedish at school, better and faster than most, but not to the point of being mistaken for a Swedish-speaking Finn, a representative of the 6%  minority who speak Swedish as (one of) their native language(s). Many of my Swedish-speaking relatives didn’t speak (or want to speak) Finnish and I felt uneasy and different at family gatherings as conversations had to be switched into Finnish to include me. Strangely enough, this continued to be the case even after I had become fluent in Swedish. To them I was still “the Finnish-speaking kid”.

These days it seems that parents often feel the need to justify to others why bilingualism is good for their children. Yes, there are thinking-related benefits and increased meta-linguistic awareness. None of these mattered to me, however; I only wanted for our children to learn both French and Finnish so that they could communicate with both sides of their families and to understand what their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins said. It’s as simple as that and not something anyone should feel like having to justify (no matter the amount of global prestige the languages in question enjoy).

You might wonder why my mom didn’t want me to learn both her languages. I know I’ve often wondered about it and  will never really know as she passed away when I was in my early twenties. I have theories (you can read the whole story here: http://www.be-bilingual.net/Read_an_excerpt.html), but mainly I just regret, whatever the reason, that my children and I missed out on a part of our cultural heritage. 

Multilingualism doesn’t always come easy – but then again nothing worthwhile ever does. I hope my story will help motivate those who are struggling to pass on a mother language. Hang in there, your children will thank you one day (or they may not, but that’s only because speaking your language will be natural to them- and there’s no better thanks than that, right?).

Bilingual Bookswap

Leave a comment


For twelve years our family has looked for books (and other materials) in French, our minority language, in every way we’ve thought of. We have checked the public library as well as that of the French cultural institute, and swapped books with other bilingual or expat families we know in our area. The French grandparents have occasionally sent us books, and each time we’ve traveled to see them we’ve reserved one suitcase for all the gems from our favorite used book stores. The girls have been subscribed to book clubs, magazines, you name it. It’s been great, but also quite expensive.

Throughout this all, I’ve been thinking how great it would be to know a family with the same language selection, but living in our minority language country. This family, which in the ideal situation would have children close to ours in age, would have Finnish as their minority language. We, living here, could help them with many things that they’re looking for to reinforce and make this language more fun to their children. We could tell them what websites our children like, what games they play and  would be happy to send them books and magazines that our children have read and that are easy and affordable for us to find here. In exchange, we would love to have French books or other materials that their children no longer read and suggestions about things that interest their peers in the French-speaking countries. I am convinced that this kind of an exchange could work and be beneficial on many levels.

A while back I started a FB group for this purpose. It ‘s stll in the beginning stages – if you think it could be a good idea, do check it out, tell us about yourself and what you would be looking for. Let others know about it, too, and together let’s get something going! You can find us here: www.facebook.com/BilingualBookswap