Experiences in bilingualism

Posted by – May 10, 2016

Arvi is almost 3, speaks Finnish pretty well and understands a lot of English, but doesn’t much like to say complete sentences in it. I’m always goading him to say things in English. Probably the most confusing situation that comes up frequently is when we’re with a Finnish person and I want to address a remark about language to Arvi, like “say thank you”, which will mix up both Arvi and the person we’re speaking to. I really mean “give thanks”, but it sounds like I’m offering a phrase. Arvi will probably say “thank you” instead of “kiitos”, and the other person will say something back in English, thinking I now want to switch to English, and it’s all a big mess. I’ve been speaking only English to Arvi so long now that it feels distinctly weird to say it in Finnish. I guess I’m going to have to accustom myself to saying “say ‘Kiitos'”, “say ‘hei hei'” etc. but it just feel wrong.

It also happens all the time (much more than you’d expect) that we’re out somewhere and I’m speaking English, and a Finnish person starts eagerly speaking to us in English, forcing me to either reply in Finnish (awkward!) or play along and reply in English (false, and setting up for super awkwardness when it comes out I’m also Finnish). I think the English makes this more likely to happen. People really like to practice their English, or make a good impression on presumed tourists/expats, I don’t know. I truly feel more respected and liked when people mistake me for an English-speaking foreigner than just another Finn. How’s that for xenophilia!

Generally, Arvi’s English is more like jumping over hurdles than really communicating, because he quite obviously knows I understand and speak Finnish, and it would be impossible to hide it. He’ll say some long phrase in Finnish, and I try to get him to say the equivalent in English, but he sort of fakes his way through it, saying some key words in English but keeping the Finnish grammar. I could turn it into a game and pretend I don’t understand Finnish, but I don’t know do I want to go there now, when three out of four days are already more stressful to get through than I’d like. Even understanding English seems to take a bit more energy than understanding Finnish, especially when we’re reading bedtime stories.

Some words are a lot easier to say in English, and Arvi prefers those. Like he always says “sad”, never “surullinen”. This applies to colours and numbers, where English is more monosyllabic (“yk-si kak-si kol-me nel-jä vii-si kuu-si seit-se-män pu-nai-nen vih-re-ä” vs. “one two three four five six sev-en red green”).


Before Arvi was born I read some summary literature on bilingualism. Now, the popular consensus on raising children bilingually is overwhelmingly positive. People very often tell me that it’s going to make my children more intelligent (I can never predict when talking about intelligence is sinister and when it’s ok; perhaps I’ll start telling them I’m sorry about their stupid monolingual children), and that it’s a great thing to do with no downside. When I’ve brought up the challenges and problems involved with it, people don’t seem to really understand what I could be talking about. But the literature is considerably more sober and even-handed, which reassured me that I’m not just being pessimistic for no reason.

I do think bilingualism is a positive – at least for this language pair – it certainly has been in my own life. I would feel guilty not to try to pass on such a gift to my own children. But it is an extra communication stress, especially in families where not everyone understands both languages. Cross-language families are less likely to stay together, just like cross-cultural families. The ideological position that more diversity is always better, no matter how much and what kind of diversity, doesn’t necessarily carry over to reality. There are benefits, but there are also downsides.

And there’s diminishing returns. Perhaps you really can be “of” two or three cultures, but five would probably be too many, especially if they were all from different continents. When children do pick up more than two or three languages, the remainder tend to be just pidgins. In a globalised world the prospects of “piling on” cultural and linguistic layers through the generations seem poor. This is like the fundamental flaw in hyphenated last names: when McAdams-Garcia and Smirnov-Céline have children, there’s going to have to be some choices, because the children can hardly be named McAdams-Garcia-Smirnov-Céline. Or if they can, after another fifteen generations you can get to 131 thousand names. (“Why is it that nobody remembers the name of Johann Gambolputty…”)

(This may be triggering to any linguists reading this, but I often think that efforts to keep very small languages alive through the children does a disservice to the children, and it would probably be better to let the language die rather than make a wasted effort and give the children something of no use in exchange for a lot of effort and bother.)

When everyone does understand both languages, it makes bilingualism less likely to completely take. One book stated outright that second-generation bilingualism (like ours, where I’m the first generation and use my bilingually-obtained language with Arvi) usually fails, and the book even mildly recommended against attempting it. It can lead to frustration and incomplete language acquisition. And I think that’s really true, though in our case I’m saved by the ubiquity and utility of English. I have friends with practically native-level (or above, especially considering things like spelling or “elevated” vocabulary) competence in English without any particular help in childhood.

On the other hand, I know other Finns with one English-speaking parent, and I’d even say their English mostly didn’t end up as good as mine. I had some advantages: my parents divorced when I was quite young, and going to my dad’s in the weekends was an environment that was 100% English. So I heard less English during the week, but there was a “natural” English environment. Also, my parents did a good job with taking us to England in the summers, a better one than we’ll likely be able to do. And my dad being a literary person was a big motivation to read English.

(With Arvi I’ve come to appreciate that my domestic English actually has holes I didn’t know about. It’s all a bit “Let me just put this hot saucepan on this… little thing you put on the table under hot things so they don’t damage the table”.)

Languages do support each other so some extent, though. Explaining difficult concepts in two ways in two languages – once by Hanna in Finnish and once by me in English – can help get it across better. This was also discussed in the literature. One thing that wasn’t is how it’s a convenient way to test whether Arvi really understands something I’m telling him to ask him to say it back to me in Finnish. He’s quite good at this.

2 Comments on Experiences in bilingualism

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  1. ML says:

    Well for instance, if you ask young Finnish-Inari Sami people whether being raised bilingual has been “useful” in their experience, I think at least 80 % of them would answer yes – even if “useful” in this context means “I’m getting something personally very relevant out of it”. And the other ten people would be indifferent but not negative, even despite the effort.


  2. k says:

    I’m in a *very* similar situation; my mom spoke English to me, while my dad spoke Norwegian; I speak English to my daughter while her mother speaks Norwegian. And I’ve noticed a lot of the same awkward situations, where e.g. people who work in kindergarten will address me in English, or where I find it hard to decide whether I should speak to my daughter in English when there are others in the conversation. Normally, though, things seem to get into a flow fairly quickly, but I still have no clue what to do when the third party doesn’t speak English, e.g. with monolingual kids present. I do get some funny stares.

    But on the whole, I feel it’s not so much trouble that it’s not worth it; especially if it’s true as they say that simply being raised bilingual makes it easer to learn a third language (of her choice). And, having a personal and professional interest in language, I do find it a lot of fun when my kid actually shows an interest in language too (“what’s that in Norwegian?” she asks, or “what’s ‘hest’ in English?” and semi-related follow-ups like “what’s ‘liten hest som har gått på do’ in English?”) or does those funny mix-ups (it’s almost a bit sad when she stops making the cute mistakes).
    My daughter also goes to a kindergarten where almost all the kids speak some other language at home, so I bet she’d feel a bit left out if she were the only monolingual …