“Is there anything in particular you would like us to know about your children?”
We had recently moved to Finland, and were visiting our children’s new school, both excited and anxious about having them start in the prestigious Finnish school system. The teachers were giving us a tour of the state-of-the-art facilities, when they asked us the question. There were plenty of things I wanted the teachers to know about our 6- and 7-year-old children and about our family. But I hardly knew where to begin.
We had left our home, friends and life in the Mediterranean for new opportunities and closeness to family in southern Finland. Our honeymoon period in Finland was just ending after a couple of months of enjoying an unusually warm Finnish summer. We had eaten copious amounts of ice-cream and strawberries, swum daily in the nearby lake, and we were even getting used to the sound of Finnish silence.
When we first started to seriously consider moving to Finland, it seemed like a no-brainer: the Finnish education system is possibly the best in the world, Finland is a safe country - we adopted many of the usual arguments that families use to convince themselves to moving to Finland. We had visited Finland regularly enough that, although our children and my husband had never lived here, settling in to a town we knew from our holidays didn’t seem like too dramatic a change. Of course, the thought of leaving our friends and the Mediterranean way of life made us sad and occasionally even doubt our decision. But we found ourselves reasonably content in Finland from day one, largely thanks to my parents who helped us settle in.
So, although I was a little disappointed that my son hadn’t immediately fallen in love with the taste of blueberries yet or that my daughter didn’t love red currant juice (all those vitamins!), I could deal with the small cultural glitches. We had discovered that people weren’t as cold and distant as everyone claimed they were - we had already had several lovely encounters with strangers on the beach and in the park, which reaffirmed my belief that we would all find friends eventually. Nobody seemed too taken aback by my husband’s dark beard and loud (by Finnish standards) voice. Even though most people still responded with a blank stare when I greeted them on my morning walks in the forest, it wasn’t a problem - I’d made it my mission to make them eventually come around. Even the tedious task of sending out numerous job applications and the prospect of perhaps having to start my career from scratch didn’t seem too daunting.
What I was concerned about was language. Before moving to Finland, our children already spoke reasonably good Finnish, considering they had never lived in Finland and had no Finnish-speaking friends in Spain. Only days after moving to Finland, they started absorbing funny little expressions like tavallaan (“in a way”) and toki (“certainly”) from those around them. However, their strongest languages in Spain were Spanish, their father’s first language, and Catalan, the community language. Also, they were exposed to English at home every day as it was the language my husband and I spoke to each other. How were they going to keep up all the languages? How were they going to keep up their Catalan when even their Spanish was slipping only after a few weeks? And what about their English - we didn’t want them to lose what they already knew, but my husband also needed to start learning Finnish - how were we going to juggle the potpourri of languages? Was it even worth it?
There were plenty of things I wanted to tell the teachers about my children’s language skills and cultural influences, but what exactly?
Should I tell them about the language thing - that our children were - for lack of a better expression - trilingual and a half? Or perhaps bilingualish?
Should I tell them that so far they had been growing up between at least four or five different cultures - Finnish, Colombian, Spanish, Catalan and that of an international immigrant community?
Should I tell them that they knew the song “Sata salamaa” almost word for word but they didn’t know if Vesa and Aino were a boy or a girl’s name, or that I had to explain what välkkäri and lukkari were? Or that they knew how to use the expression sikahyvä but also struggled to correctly conjugate everyday verbs like tykätä and lukea? How was I to tell the teachers about the mishmash of languages and cultures that constituted our family without putting them to sleep?
I didn’t know, so to keep it simple, I just told them that they were bilingual and said we would love for them to do extracurricular Spanish, and if they needed to do S2 instead of the usual äidinkieli, that was fine. I don’t know if omitting the details really mattered in the context of a Finnish school. It mattered to us, but it seemed too complicated to get into. I decided that I could always bring up the language-thing during our first official parent-teacher chat later on.
Language is complex. Even though people often say that children are sponges and learn languages immediately through immersion, even they have to readjust. Our children are still learning to differentiate between kärpänen, ampiainen and hyttynen. Their go-to language when they play together is still Spanish - at least for now. As a multicultural and multilingual family, we’ve only just begun the process of adapting our communication as we settle into our new lives in Finland. We still don’t know how our children’s relationship to their various languages will evolve over time.
So, yes, it’s complicated. But for now, I take comfort in the caption under our 6-year-old’s self-portrait on his eskari wall. His teacher interviewed him and wrote down what he wanted to tell others about himself. The caption states our current language situation perfectly. It says: “In my family, we speak Finnish, Spanish and English - tavallaan.”
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