Once upon a time I was bilingual, and English was not one of my languages. Today I am more comfortable writing and speaking in English than in any other language. Who would have thought that one could forget one’s native languages so easily?
The first language I learned was Finnish. When I was born my parents had been married for a bit more than 9 months and my mother had not yet been able to convince my father to speak to me in his mother-tongue, Swedish.
For those of you who are not very familiar with Finland, in Finland both Finnish and Swedish are official languages. Finland was part of Sweden for a long time, and there were times when Swedish was the only official language, Finnish being spoken mostly by peasants. Today the number of people who speak Swedish as their mother tongue is about 5.5% of the population. Due to historical circumstances the Swedish-speaking-Finns are often perceived, by Finnish speakers, as being part of the upper class. Although this is not true about many Swedish speakers, they do represent a large proportion of Finnish nobility.
Back to my own story. My father came from a stereo-typical upper-class family, and in his rebellious years he decided to discard his origins and become a “common” Finnish man. But his attempts were thwarted by my mother who, despite her enthusiasm for Communism, was quite delighted to have married into such an elevated family. So, off we went from the town of Vantaa to the fancy South of Helsinki, into a life we could not really afford. On the outside my mother’s reason for having me and my sister learn Swedish was a logical one. In a bilingual country it is always useful to learn a second language, and it would be stupid not to let your kids have the advantage of bilingualism. Therefore we were placed in a Swedish language kindergarten and soon we were both speaking fluent Swedish. Perhaps my mother came to regret her decision when the conversations at home turned Swedish, leaving her on the outside. In the cruel way of children we tended to mock her attempts at speaking Swedish, finding her limited ability embarrassing.
We knew both languages perfectly but tended to mix them with no problem. The example my mother used to give was of my sister shouting from the balcony. ‘Tuleeko joku sälskaappaamaan mun kanssa kun mä syön ostsmörgåsia balkongilla. (Eng. Is someone coming to keep me company while I eat a cheese-sandwich on the balcony) The red is Finnish and the Green is Swedish. It is basically a Finnish sentence where several words are Swedish but with Finnish inflection (eg. ostsmörgåsia = ostsmörgås (swedish; cheese-sandwich) + ia (Finnish partitive case)). This laziness in our spoken language would persist, as you will see.
At the age of 15 i moved to Brussels with my father and sister. At that point my parents had been divorced for a few years, and we left our mother behind, jumping at the chance to move away from Finland. This is when the slow erosion of my languages started. At the European School children are mainly taught in their mother tongue, so my Swedish did not suffer immediately. But there was no chance of learning Finnish as a foreign language, and with my mother far away my Finnish began to deteriorate. The real disaster for my two mother tongues, however, was leaving school. At the end of school most Finnish people I knew moved away and I no-longer had classes in Swedish. Instead I began studying in English. Slowly the common language between me and my sister turned into a new version of the mixed-speak we used to use in Finland. This time the mix was of Swedish and English. We would say things like “Om Bush blir vald kommer den Amerikanska governmenten att lägra taxes för de rika.” (Eng. If Bush is elected the American government will lower taxes for the rich).
The death of my mother in 2007 was the end of my Finnish. I still speak it, but for some reason I feel more comfortable speaking French (appallingly bad after 16 years in Brussels) than Finnish. I think the reason is the knowledge that this is a language I should know, but which I do not. This is the first language I learned, the language of my mother. How can it have disappeared? My embarrassment at this loss, makes me nervous at speaking in Finnish, because every stumbled word and wrong sentence construction reminds me of my failure to retain my mother tongue. My Swedish is far superior to my Finnish, but my vocabulary is quite meager and when I look through old papers I see, to my horror, that I used more advanced vocabulary at the age of 14 than I do now.
So here I am, having lost not only one, but two mother tongues. This is something I would never have imagined happening. How can words I spoke with such ease in my youth be so foreign to me today? And when I forgot how to speak in the languages of my childhood, what part of myself did I lose?