Mother tongue

Pitäisköhän sanoa jotain suomeksi tässä alussa? No kai se on parempi etta vaan käytän Englantia että kaikki ymmärtää sen.

Writing those words in Finnish feels foreign but achingly familiar at the same time. Like walking through your old neighbourhood that has since filled with new people and new developments, but always feels like a part of you nevertheless.

I haven’t been surrounded by Finnish since I was 11 and I haven’t spoken it regularly since I was about 15 or 16. But the more fundamental shift was silent, gradually happening inside the little folds of my brain as I shifted from thinking in Finnish to thinking in English. They say that the language you speak, the words you have available to you, alter the way you think. I always wonder how my thinking shifted when my primary language changed. I feel like it did but I couldn’t tell you how.

I thought it was impossible for another language to ever overtake my mother tongue, the language I was born into. The concept of ‘mother tongue’ is important in Finland, perhaps because Finnish is a lonely island in the world of languages, completely unlike those of the neighbouring countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, who can at least vaguely understand each other. The only language even remotely like Finnish is Estonian. In the face of that, you might think it surprising that the language survived at all, until you meet a Finn: quiet and reserved, but proud to the point of obstinacy. The country was swapped between Sweden and Russia for most of its existence, but clung to the language with utter determination. Never underestimate the power of a language: it gives the voice and shape of a culture.

It used to be that I would just forget words, simple vocabulary. That wasn’t a big deal, that’s just a matter of hearing the language for a bit, of letting the Finnish words float to the top again. But now, even when I find them, the words feel foreign in my mouth. When I try and wrap my tongue around the endless hard consonants, it feels as though my mouth is full of molasses.

Writing has become a challenge too (but one I proudly struggled through for my thank-you cards). Finnish has a strange construction, with a lot of compound words: words stacked upon words stacked upon words. The example I always give is of simple locations – ‘in the box’ becomes ‘laatikossa’ while ‘on the box’ becomes ‘laatikolla’ and so on. It gets a lot more complicated. It is incredibly difficult to become fully fluent in Finnish past the magical age of about 10 or 11, when your brain still has the elasticity to handle absorbing such a screwed up language.

People tell me it’s understandable that I would be losing my Finnish; I’ve spent many more years now speaking English. They raise their eyebrows in admiration when I say I can still read the language. They are impressed because they hear my essentially* un-accented English and lump me in with them. They don’t understand.

I wish I could take comfort in these rationalizations, but I know better. I should be able to speak it without trouble, but I gave up. I hate doing things that are difficult for me, so I chose the easy road instead. Most significantly, I gave myself permission a long time ago to speak to my mom in English. I struggled with this decision for many years, but eventually decided it was better to communicate with my mom than not. Finnish had became a barrier to expressing myself freely because it wasn’t the language my life was lived in. The struggle of feeling like I couldn’t share my life with my mom was an obstacle I didn’t want to grapple with any more.

John and I are going to visit my mom in Finland in about a month, which means I have already spent the last two or three months feeling the guilt and shame pile up. Going to Finland always fills me with a mix of happiness and dread; happiness for seeing my mom and reuniting with a place that will always hold a piece of me, and dread for having to hold my inadequacy up to the light. It’s hard enough with strangers – I’m not supposed to stand out in my own country, speaking my own language – but it’s by far the hardest with people who knew me before, who knew me when Finnish was the only language that gave voice to my thoughts. A few years ago when one of my old friends from Finland said I ‘spoke funny’, I disintegrated into hot shame-filled tears for hours. They don’t understand.

I spend my time in Finland avoiding everything but the most basic conversation, lest I stumble onto words I can’t find and give myself away. There are entire spheres of my life that I can’t talk about at all, like my work; I never learned environmental health researcher or air pollution health effects in Finnish. I am there, but observing from behind a barrier that I don’t have the guts to crawl over. I could probably chat a lot more if only I allowed myself to make mistakes, if I was willing to just use whatever words will get the point across. But I can’t do that. I am supposed to be better.

I am trying. Or at least trying to try. I keep meaning to pick up one of the Finnish books I asked my mom to bring me last summer, but I still haven’t. Well I picked one up, but I haven’t read the first page, so I don’t think it counts. Reading a Finnish book is akin to reading a textbook; it takes time, patience, and concentration, none of which I have at 10pm. But I’m going to try harder. I have to, for my mother and her mother, and even for the mother I might become myself.

*97% of people don’t seem to notice an accent at all and are very surprised to hear English is not my first language, but very occasionally someone with a sharp ear will surprise me by asking ‘where is that accent from?’


Posted on July 12, 2011, in Life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Nina! Let’s have a language pow-wow shall we? I never learned how to say pow-wow in Spanish and incidentally it is a word I use all the frigging time. I don’t know how to say ‘friggin’ either. Oy.

    I hear you lady, I hear you! I started using English at home primarily around the same time you did, 11. For awhile it was fine, because I still studied Spanish at school, but after high school the decline was precipitous. I didn’t know how to talk about my studies with people in Spanish, I started tripping and stumbling over pronunciation and I forgot simple words. “Crap. How do you say fence? bowl?” Sometimes I get so frustrated I stamp my feet when the words feel like giant sponges in my mouth and I can’t move my tongue correctly due to the obstacle.

    When my family was here for our wedding I caught a few of my spanish-only relatives conferring between each other that I speak the best Spanish of all my siblings, that my American accent is nearly undetectable. I can’t tell you how relieved that made me feel.

    And the Cowboy? The poor Cowboy. I know it isn’t quite the same but he left home to travel the world (working as a cowboy) at age 18, and his Northern England accent was so THICK that no one could understand him. He moderated it, took care to make his speech more deliberate and broader, and now, more than ten years later, he barely sounds English at all. He has a mystery accent all of his own invention, highly influenced by North America with a tiny bit of Austrilasia/Oceana built in. Even in the two years since meeting me the accent has faded further. I know it makes him sad when Americans say, “Where are you from? Canada? Utah?” because they can’t place his accent, and when he goes home to England even the customs agents say, “Oh, you’re English? You don’t sound English at all.”

    Okay, I have to stop now because this is like a novel, but one last thing: These ladies (who are awesome and who I might blog about because they stir the tiny Russian side of my heart) speak a language close to Finnish!

    • Oh wow, it’s actually really great to know someone else who crossed over languages at the same time as me – early enough to learn the new one fluently, but late enough to always expect to retain the first one as well. It’s a tough balance.

      A family friend in Finland once said how great my finnish still was and it seriously made my heart glow for hours (it was shortly after the crying breakdown). He had grand-kids who had moved to Canada and so he understood what a challenge it can be. That encouragement is SO needed.

  2. Yeah Nina, totally. I grew up in Mexico (lived there until I was 19), then went to Switzerland, afterwards to Spain and now I´m in Holland. Of course spanish is still my mother tongue, because I studied it up til the end of high school I guess, but when I go back, similarly to what Zan described above, people say I have some kind of funny neutral accent. Like I lost my characteristical mexican accent. Sometimes people still pick it up. And of course, my best friend being from Bolivia and having being in Spain for 4 years, you pick up words, expressions, accents. And sometimes I try to think of a word and it comes in french instead of dutch or english or whatever other language that is not the one I am trying to come up with the word in. But reading helps a lot (and of course speaking too, if you can). I try to force myself to read, so not to lose it. both in spanish and in french. And after all it is how I learnt most of my english. How it really improved, I believe.

    • OK I have a hard enough time managing my two languages – I’m highly impressed with your multitudes of them!

      It is amazing how quickly your brain picks up expressions and ways of phrasing things – I totally notice that even when I can find the Finnish words, I phrase them in the same way I would if I was speaking English. It’s not technically wrong, but just a slightly different flow and way of organizing words. So I totally understand how you would pick up things from Spain, and even the other languages and mix them in.

      I picked up that book for real last night after writing this, and it was so much easier than I thought it would be! I think I might actually make some progress on it.

  3. Dude, I am simply open-mouthed impressed that you were raised with language other than English, period. The closest I ever got to bilingualism was stamped out when my dad was four — his parents stopped speaking Polish to him and spoke only English. They thought it would help him with school. They never stopped to think that a generation later, their granddaughter would have KILLED to have been introduced to another language than just English. They never thought people would come back around to embracing their native cultures. They were just focused on assimilation.

    So, I find your story utterly fascinating. And I see dedication and devotion to your mother tongue where you see guilt and shame for having “failed.” So at least know that, even though it’s a hard road.

    • Honestly, the bit about doing it for the “mother I might become” is actually a pretty significant motivator – I want my kid(s) to learn at least some Finnish and they can’t if I can barely speak it. It’s probably over-ambitious to think they could learn it fully, but I would really feel like I’m letting them, and my background, down if I don’t at least try. But I get where your dad’s parents are coming from too – it’s an up-hill battle and the language you’re surrounded by does take precedence.

  4. Such an interesting conversation. I look forward to hearing how the visit goes.

    I live mostly in my native language, but speak two other languages, one of which is the language of the culture in which I live (French), so I get the times of looking for a word, and finding the word in the wrong language for the conversation I’m having. For some reason, I must have some weird links ’cause every time I look for the French word for frame, I immediately can only think of “ramme,” which is the word in Norwegian. Now at least I know I do this and can avoid unknowingly throwing it straight in the middle of a French conversation, which of course confuses the listener, haha. But now there is a pause while my brain goes from “ramme”–no, that is Norwegian–argh, what is “frame” in French and why can I never remember it–ooh, it’s uh, I almost have it, it’s….– oh yeah….”cadre”– whew.

    Yeah…language and its impact on identity and thought process and all that is fascinating to me. (And my husband is also an advocate of the great benefit of reading to “effortlessly” get the proper structure and vocabulary of French in my head. (He did it to learn English. That and watching Star Trek.) Of course, for us, it is a thing for learning our second languages, but I totally get how useful it could be for refreshing your native language when you live in English.

    • Again, I’m struggling enough with my two, I’m amazed that people can keep several languages in their heads at the same time! Though reading and TV/movies (if available) really do help when you don’t have the opportunity to use it in your daily life.

      Your story of mixing up words reminds me of the first few years my mom and I lived in Canada and we came up with lots of English-Finnish hybrid words – but totally unintentionally. They just morphed together in our confused brains. Got to be hilarious at times.

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