How Do You Decide What Languages to Speak?

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.


Trilingual We Will Go

One of the most interesting things we see after traveling abroad is how it has affected our kids’ language development. Both of them are now speaking more Finnish, for starters. Beta is young enough to not really differentiate between the languages in her life and is quite happy to tell me to “istuu alas” while telling her father to “setzt dich hin!” (both mean sit down). She also regularly yells, “DH! SYÖMÄÄN!” (Let’s eat). She tells me, “Hattu pään,” which means “put the hat on the head,” though I’m not sure of the spelling and “tutti suun, tutti suussa and tuttu suusta.” Pacifer into the mouth, pacifier is in the mouth and pacifier goes out of the mouth (I think. I’m not sure what the -sta ending changes in Finnish grammatically speaking), which is an amazing grasp of Finnish grammar and just reiterates the importance of pretending you don’t understand the other language spoken in the family.

Alpha remains resistant to Finnish, but since we’ve managed to clean out one of his ears, he’s speaking more of it. I’m not sure if this is just me being biased, but I also think his pronunciation is clearer and I can understand him better. He might also just be following his sister’s lead, but he’s saying more words to DH in Finnish than he did before our trip. He also informs me when I get stuck reading a Finnish book to Beta, “Ich verstehe dich nicht.” (I don’t understand you) and then offers a correction as needed. Punk. But I’m proud of him and it’s good that he realizes he knows more Finnish than me. I also hope he’s realizing knowing these languages is a skill not everyone has and it’s important for him to have it.

However, he was less than thrilled about going to Finnish school this morning and wanted to stay home. He’s reaching an age where if he resists something, it’s very difficult to get him to go along with it. This means we have to work very hard to make sure he’s an active participant in these activities and wants to go. Time for me and DH to put on our thinking caps and try to come up with various forms of motivating him to want to go to Finnish school and to keep speaking Finnish to his dad at night. So far, ample praise works in the evenings. I don’t think it’s going to work with Finnish school, however. It’s a long trip. They do go to McDonald’s afterwards, but I’m not sure if that is special enough. Maybe a trip to an ice cream shop once the weather starts getting warmer? Maybe I should stop trying to bribe him with food and we can keep some stickers or fake tattoos in the car for them after Finnish school.

My WALL-E Movie Hack

When I watch WALL-E with my kids, I like to stop by the movie approximately 3 minutes from the end. Why? Because then I get to watch a much better movie. If you stop it at that point, WALL-E is about robot who sacrificed himself in order to save humanity. It raises questions about personality: did WALL-E really survive? How much of him is still in there? Will he ever come back? How do you define a person? If his personality doesn’t return, is WALL-E still WALL-E?

If you watch the entire movie, it becomes a normal, trite Disney/Pixar film about the hero who saved the world, got the girl and remains largely unaffected. The trite ending Germans call “Das Happy End.” Meaningless.

Just stop the movie after WALL-E takes EVE’s hand, but before he completely magically returns. You won’t regret it.

Investing in the Future

I watched the movie Children of Men on Scandinavian Netflix and it was really good. The general theme of the movie is that unexplained infertility causes the collapse of civilization and only Great Britain has managed to maintain a government and not fall into anarchy, thus causing illegal immigrants to try to sneak in there (In the real world, I think it would be the other way around). I know people always say, “Well, children are the future!” but this movie really hammered that fact home. If you have kids or have a friend who does, you’re somewhat invested in the future. If no one has kids, humanity has no future. What’s the sense in saving for a rainy day if there’s not going to be anyone down the line to inherit?

Nowadays Americans don’t save much. We save more than we did in 2006, when we had a negative savings rate, but we still aren’t saving a lot. Meanwhile, birth rates around the world have plummeted to barely or just below replacement levels and experts have predicted a large population crunch. The US always brags that we won’t have that problem because we can replenish our labor force with immigrants. Not so easy if there aren’t people immigrating. People are having fewer kids. Part of this is a consumption choice: children are a consumer good. We can have kids, or we can have an Ipad. After struggling to get Beta to put her diaper on before bed, my husband commented that he can definitely understand why people are choosing to consume Ipads instead of kids because kids are a pain in the ass. You don’t have to potty train your Ipad. It doesn’t wake you up in the middle of the night or throw fits at the mall.

But at the same,  mankind as a whole has decided to invest less in the future and more in today. We’re not saving the money we’re not spending on our kids on the kids we’re not having, we’re consuming it on alternate products. Has the investment value of kids gone down? What is the actual investment worth of a child versus a stock or real estate? How would you even measure such a thing.

But the movie did leave a lasting impression that the inability to have kids definitely results in everyone’s time preference becoming a lot higher.

My New Year’s Habit Plan

I’m going to develop some new habits this new year, I’ve decided. I could be normal and just call them resolutions because I’ve definitely resolved to make these new habits, but that would be boring and make it too easy for me to give up because everyone always gives up on their New Year’s Resolutions once they become old (approximately 2 to 6 weeks into the new year). I’m going to be different this year because….

I’m going to change my habits! Yaaaaaay!

Here are the habits I’m going to change:

1) Eating habits. I’m going to go back to primal/paleo/low-carb eating once I get back to the US. It’s too hard (and expensive) to eat primal in Europe, so I’m not really trying. I have a massive headache because of it, too. But once I get home, I’m not going to buy stuff that’s not primal (unless of course it’s for the kids, but usually what happens is the kids get some and I eat the rest. Bad. Very bad). Once the sugar runs out, we’re just going to sweeten with xylitol. Maybe this will work. I hope it does because I have 15 lbs of baby weight I still need to lose.

2) Brushing my teeth. I’m going to do it twice a day. I’ve been trying to develop this habit for years, but I can’t ever remember to brush them after breakfast. I just need to make it a habit. Write it backwards on my forehead or something. I’m tired of getting cavities and I think this would help.

3) I’m going to write more frequently on this blog. I’m writing a ton now because I’m on vacation. But I don’t want to go back to writing sporadically once I’m no longer on vacation.

4) Do more at-home strength training. Due to said vacation, we’re broke and can’t afford a gym membership. There’s no guarantee I would go even if we had one. But there’s nothing stopping me from doing squats, push ups and situps at home. Aside from sloth, that is. I need to make it a habit and then do it.

Of course, everything always tells you to start with one habit and go from there. So I will start with the eating habit, my biggest challenge. Or maybe I should start with teeth brushing, since it’s something I could easily do then maybe it will make the other habits easier to establish once I have the flush of success.

I don’t know. I just hope I can make a few changes in my lifestyle in the upcoming year. Develop some better habits so I can be a bit better role model for the kids. I can’t always tell them no, they can’t have a soda while hiding my can behind a stack of books. They’re going to catch on sooner or later.