It’s funny, but I had never really asked my mother about her history of two languages in any detail, so I thought an interview for this blog would be a good chance to learn more about this aspect of my family tree. Below are the highlights of this interview, conducted via email and Skype.
At the same time, perhaps her story can offer us some food for thought as we pursue our own bilingual journey. The era may be different, but the challenge remains much the same.
Tell us about your family and how they came to immigrate from Finland to America.
I suppose my grandparents immigrated to America in search of a better life. Since I was the youngest child in my family, I didn’t really know my grandparents. In fact, I can’t recall ever having met them, though I might have.
My father’s parents settled in Minnesota where there were many Finns and other Scandinavians. My mother’s parents settled in Massachusetts where there was also a pocket of Finns. When I was young my family didn’t live in either Minnesota or Massachusetts, which made it unlikely that I would have contact with my grandparents. We lived in Ohio.
How did your parents meet?
When my father was a young minister, he made a trip to Massachusetts to visit other churches, and met my mother there. They were in Minnesota for a while, before I was born, but then he was called to be a minister at a church in Ohio.
Tell us more about your parents, including their bilingual ability.
My parents spoke Finnish and English and they spoke both languages very well. My father conducted two services at his church every Sunday, one in Finnish and the other in English. He was very fluent in Finnish, and wrote his sermons in both languages. Although they used English a lot, they spoke in Finnish with congregation members who didn’t speak English well.
Musical genes were there, too. My mother’s family was quite musical. Her father was a cantor, a singer, at church, and apparently had a fine voice.
My mother had a fine singing voice, too, and somewhere along the way, she must have had piano lessons. At the churches where my father was the minister, she directed the choir and played the piano. She never had organ lessons, but she played the organ, too. If she had had more education, I think she would have done more with her music. I don’t believe she ever graduated from high school.
What was your home life like as a child, in terms of the languages used within your family?
As a small child at home, I spoke both Finnish and English, though I can’t recall whether my parents favored one language over the other. It just seemed natural that I spoke both languages and many of the people we knew spoke both languages, too.
I do remember speaking Finnish to the mother of one of my little friends. She had come from Finland and she spoke mostly Finnish as her English was quite broken. I think most of the time her kids spoke Finnish to her.
Interestingly, this woman came to America on the Titantic. She was one of the survivors.
What was it like for you personally, growing up with two languages?
I didn’t really continue using both languages. When I started school, I think I became embarrassed about speaking Finnish, and I just didn’t speak it so much after that, even at home. My parents never urged me to speak Finnish more. So we spoke mostly in English, and they didn’t use much Finnish with me.
At school, I had new friends who didn’t speak Finnish, so I just naturally spoke English. If I had had other friends who spoke Finnish, that might have made a difference, but we all spoke English. I had no reason to use Finnish, with my friends or my family.
In what ways did your parents try to nurture your ability in Finnish?
My parents didn’t really encourage or discourage the use of Finnish. I always understood more Finnish than I could speak.
Tell us about the year you spent in Finland as a college student.
After I finished my freshman year in college, my parents decided to go to Finland for a few years because my father had been invited to serve as minister at a small church there. As I was the only child still at home—and my father was very conservative—I didn’t have much choice about going or not. I didn’t want to leave college, but I recall being pretty excited about sailing abroad for the first time.
So that year I lived in Finland with my parents in a small apartment adjoining the church in Lahti. It was the first time for all of us to be in Finland.
I was very homesick, mainly because I didn’t speak Finnish well and I was very shy about trying to converse. The happiest part of that year was taking organ and piano lessons with fine teachers, though they spoke hardly any English. Music is truly the universal language!
My teachers were disappointed when I left Finland after one year. I think I was their prize American student! After one year I really wanted to go home because my sister was getting married and I wanted to be in her wedding. I also wanted to go back to college that fall. My parents agreed and I sailed home alone. It was surprising that they allowed that! I had a wonderful time on that ship—a big Swedish liner. I danced up a storm! It was really exhilarating to be on my own at last!
Did your Finnish improve during your year in Finland?
I think I improved, but I was still very shy about trying to converse with others. I knew my Finnish wasn’t very good.
In fact, when my parents got to Finland, they found that the Finns in Finland spoke a little differently and this was sometimes challenging for them. Even though they were fluent, the Finnish there was actually a little different from the language they spoke.
As an adult, did you ever feel some regret over not maintaining your early bilingual ability?
I regret very much that I didn’t retain my Finnish. I could have gotten a lot more out of Finland if I had spoken Finnish well. Had I been more mature, I would have dug in and learned more of the language. I was so sheltered, too, that I began to rebel against my parents.
Among six siblings, only my oldest brother spoke Finnish well. He was a scholar and he had a strong interest in the language. He also married a woman of Finnish descent who spoke Finnish. My sister spoke a little Finnish, as did my youngest brother, who also married a woman of Finnish descent. My two other brothers spoke very little Finnish, though I’m sure they did when they were young, like me.
How do you feel having bilingual grandchildren?
I’m very happy to have bilingual grandchildren! Their two languages will always serve them well, especially since English is now such a universal language.
Outside the Box: Creative Solutions to Challenges Raising Bilingual Children (a great story about my father)