Family gatherings at my in-laws’ house are complicated these days. When we are around, there are four languages buzzing through the air at any giving moment. Me, speaking to my kids in German (and the in-laws breaking out in German on occasion because they can), me and the in-laws speaking English together because it’s our lingua franca, the in-laws speaking to my kids in Finnish, and my sisters-in-law, mother-in-law and husband speaking to my Finnish niece in Swedish.
On my Finnish niece’s birth certificate, her mother tongue is listed as Swedish, which is the language my husband and his sisters grew up speaking with their mother. In Swedish, they’re known as Finlands-Svensk, finnish Swedes. The reality of the matter is more complicated: genetically speaking, there is no difference between Finns and finnish Swedes. They’re the same people. Although DH’s father is Finnish and speaks Finnish, if you go back far enough on his family tree, you find Swedes. My niece’s father is a Finnish speaking Finn as well, so finnish Swedes are better described as Swedish-speaking Finns than Swedes.
In a time when the Swedish-speaking population of Finland is rapidly declining, the fight to maintain their linguistic heritage is a fierce one. At the wedding and funeral I’ve been to, the Swedish speakers had no qualms about singing as loud as they could so that the Swedish lyrics would overwhelm the Finnish ones. For my sister-in-law, there was no question of not passing on her Swedish language. It’s very natural for her and her mother to speak Swedish to my niece and they enjoy doing so. My other sister-in-law is raising a Swedish speaking cat, Scrutis (a Swedish name. I’m probably spelling it wrong). In all likelihood, my niece will attend a Swedish speaking school and have the right to services in Swedish. Her presence will help shore up Swedish numbers, ensuring that they have at least 3,000 Swedish speakers in an town so that all street signs will have to be in both languages.
This is all theoretical though. Swedish speakers in Finland are dying out. Eastern Finns don’t like them. The study abroad coordinator at my university was from Jyväskylä and when I told her my boyfriend was a finnish Swede, she looked like she had just sucked on a lemon. Most Swedish speakers not only speak Finnish but are also marrying Finnish speakers. Although my niece has the right to services in Swedish, as she grows it will become increasingly unlikely anyone will be able to provide them to her. My husband tried to get service in Swedish in his hometown and the city workers patiently replied in Finnish until he gave up and spoke Finnish. Aside from the Swedish they had learned (and in all likelihood, forgotten) in school, they didn’t speak Swedish.
All of this factored into our decision not to pass Swedish onto our kids. Our kids would have Finnish citizenship, not Swedish. They would have to interact with Finnish speakers in Finland 98% of the time, not Swedish speakers. Add into that the fact that we already had two Germanic languages (English and German) and Swedish lost out.
However, our decision was also geographically based. We live in the US, so we don’t feel a need to actively pass on English. If we lived in Finland, the situation would be different. Finnish would be our community language then, relieving my husband of his responsibility to be the sole source of Finnish. He would be free to speak Swedish. English would no longer be the tsunami threatening to take over everything, leaving me free to speak it to my kids without risk that they wouldn’t grow up multilingual. We would still be raising trilingual children and they could learn German in school or by traveling there. We still wouldn’t need 3 Germanic languages.
So much of our decisions in life are made based on where we live. It would certainly make things easier for my mother-in-law if we had decided to pass Swedish on instead of Finnish. When she talks to the grandkids, she has to remember talk in Swedish to my sister-in-law’s daughter, then Finnish to my kids. She mixes them up a lot. But I assume this kind of mental gymnastics will delay any onset of dementia and is good for her. It helps she has to speak English to me. My father-in-law has it easier: he pretty much only speaks Finnish, so he sticks to that.
As for me, I’ve decided to speak English to my Finnish niece. I figure she’ll need it anyway for school and German isn’t really of much use to her right now.