Finished with Finnish? Considering Future Options pt1

An off-hand comment has spawned a parenting crisis in my household.

We had just returned home from German class and Alpha showed me this Christmas card he had made there and gleefully pointed out how he had written over “Frohe Weihnachten” in his secret code. He likes to do this: not pay attention during German class and write things like “lol stupid” or “death” or whatever in his secret code instead. I looked at the paper as disappointment washed over me again and told him, “Alpha, sometimes I think it would make just as much sense to put you in a closet for an hour as to send you to German class.”
This triggered my husband, who is already suffering from language anxiety. Finnish has fallen on the wayside, largely due to his inability to schedule a set time where he sits down with the kids and does Finnish with them. Their understanding of Finnish has plummeted. They very, very rarely use any Finnish at all. Beta says “olkapäällä”when she wants to ride on DH’s shoulders, Gamma says “hattu” (hat) and a few other words, but for the most part they speak English with German coming as a distant second. Consequently, my husband has decided that if they can’t understand him in Finnish, he’s going to speak to him in German. Problem is: his German sucks. I mean, fine, it’s better than my Finnish, but it’s like my Spanish: he had it for many years in school, can understand it pretty well, but anytime he can’t find a word he goes into his next best language (in his case, Swedish) to find it– oh, and his grammar is lacking. It’s completely pointless.

“Why do you do that?” I asked him. “It’s not going to improve their Finnish and it’s definitely not going to help their German.”
“I refuse to speak to them in English!” he insisted. “I’m not going to do it!” But he does. We both do. It’s inevitable when you’re homeschooling or when you live in an English-speaking country and the kids talk about most things in English.
But what followed was an angst-ridden evening on his part where he threw out suggestions ranging from the ridiculous to the implausible to improve their German and Finnish. “We’ll take their tablets away for the whole weekend unless they actually speak in German in their German classes and Finnish in their Finnish classes!” Alpha’s eyes immediately teared up. “We’ll just move to Germany and stay there for as many years as we need to until their fluent in German!” Sigh. He knows the kids the are against moving to Germany and phrasing it that way makes it seem like a punishment: you’re going to stay in prison until you’re sorry for what you did! I told my husband that this was not the time nor the place to discuss this, especially if any of the suggestions were going to be as ridiculous as those were. But still, he spent a lot of time telling me how upset it was making him that we were failing in our attempts to teach the kids Finnish and German and how they didn’t appreciate how we were trying to give them a leg up in life. “Languages open so many doors! They could go to university in Finland or Germany and save a ton of money, but they need to know the languages!” (Germany actually has a lot of English language university programs, but he didn’t know that) His despair was palpable. And, honestly, even I’ve been feeling that way a lot more when it comes to our languages.

The next day we finally had a chance to talk about things and, through the course of our discussion, came up with three plausible solutions to improve our kids’ language abilities:

1) increase the home study and make sure the kids do Finnish three times a week and German twice.

2) Move, either closer to Boston or abroad to Germany or Finland, either temporarily or permanently.

3) Drop Finnish. Concentrate on German. Or drop both of those and let the kids pick a language to learn.

Option 1 is fairly straight forward.  I already sit down twice a week with the kids and do German, using the German at home course “Einsterns Schwester.” The kids aren’t fans of it (given the choice between doing it and not doing it, they would rather not do it), but they do it and I’m pretty impressed at how much German Alpha understands and recalls. Beta…well, it feels like she’s learning German more as a second language now as far as recall is concerned. So German is covered.
Finnish is a whole other story. For the longest time (two years maybe?) my husband has had “Finnish” penciled into his calendar for every Friday. Guess how many times he actually sat down and did Finnish with the kids.
In August after another period of language angst, we had decided that twice a week DH would do Finnish with the kids while I drove Gamma to preschool and the other day of the week, I would do German with the kids while he drove Gamma to preschool. Guess how many times this actually happened? Yep, zero. I drive Gamma to school every time. Though twice now after smaller bouts of language-concern, my husband has sat down and done Finnish with them, though one of those was this morning, so I’m not sure it counts.
My husband has lots of reasons why he doesn’t have time to do Finnish with the kids. He has a lot of work to do. True, this is a constant factor, it’s not going to change. He either needs to work around it or give up. We don’t have a good resource for Finnish like the ones I have for German. Also true: the Finnish schools won’t even hand any over to my mother-in-law when she asks. It’s like they keep their curriculum under lock and key and, true to low Finnish self-esteem, don’t actually think there might be children who want to learn Finnish at home. He can’t find the materials we do have. This isn’t even a proper reason; it’s just his lack of ability to find anything and then not asking me where they are (though I would probably tell him “On the bookshelf,” instead of giving him the exact longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates he’s probably looking for).
I’ve tried doing Finnish with the kids at home, but my Finnish isn’t good enough to understand a lot of the Finnish-language stuff we have, so I have to ask my husband for help translating if it’s not in my Finnish-English dictionary. My pronunciation is pretty bad, too. “You should really have dad do this,” was my kids’ advice after the first time I tried. I agreed with them.
The basic problem, I think, is one of habit. DH is not in the habit of teaching the kids. I am, so throwing German into the pile on top of everything else a couple of times a week isn’t a big deal. But for him… it’s a wild deviation from the norm. He also isn’t a natural teacher. I don’t think I am either, but I’ve learned a few things over the past 4-5 years of homeschooling. DH is good at explaining things to adults, but it doesn’t translate well to kids.
We ran through some suggestions, including the possibility of getting the kids Rosetta Stone for Finnish. That fell flat when I looked online and discovered that in the 11 years since i last looked for a Finnish Rosetta Stone program, they still don’t offer one. So screw Rosetta I’m-going-to-offer-courses-in-Irish-Dari-Pashtu-and-Swedish-but-not-Finnish Stone.
So I started throwing out suggestions that he would have known had he read the book on Growing up Trilingual I asked him to read 5 years ago but he never did. Make language learning fun! Play games with the kids, like memory or Uno or this Finnish Moomin game I can’t understand and so have never played it with the kids. He’s followed this advice, but a new complaint from the kids has arisen: “You always win when we play games with you,” Alpha groused.
My husband looked sheepish. “I’m not trying to win! It was just luck!”
There are other things he could do, like bribe the kids. Here’s a list of Finnish vocabulary words. Every time you learn one you get a dime.

But just starting with sitting down with them three times a week…would be a great start in the short-term. The other two options I’ll discuss in later posts and are more long-term in as far as planning and consequences are concerned.


Why I No Longer Worry about Language Balance

Beta is spouting more and more English lately, thanks to Dora. She wanders around the house saying, “Hi! I’m Dora. Do you I like stickers? Good! I like stickers, too!” and regularly calls me ‘mommy,’ except for when she is really distressed, in which case I’m still äiti. I’ve actually started wondering if I should stop letting her watch Dora, since it’s having such an influence on her language and is skewing things so much toward it. Since English is our community language, it has a clear advantage as far as usefulness is concerned. DH and I have to artificially inflate the importance of Finnish and German so that they keep speaking it to us and that English creep doesn’t eventually win out.

Then I realized that cutting out Dora would be entirely pointless. With Alpha, I probably would have cut it out. But in the intervening time, I think I’ve come to accept that there is absolutely no way we can effectively control the language balance in our lives. We can influence it in some ways, but completely control it? No.

Here’s why:

1) English will win–no matter where you live. It’s a major global language. No matter where you’re growing up, you will need to know English. Even North Korea teaches it. My kids are obviously going to figure that out eventually. If English is one of your bilingual languages, eventually it will pull out ahead. That’s just the way things are.

2) Kids develop their own preferences for languages. Right now, Alpha prefers German because he has the highest likelihood of being understood when he speaks it. Beta moves between all of them fairly easily at the moment, but I’m betting that will change as she gets older. Many older multilingual kids refuse to speak their second language unless they have to.

3) Bilingual children have periods where they refuse to speak a language. My husband grew up speaking Swedish as his mother tongue and Finnish as his father and community tongue. In spite of the fact he and his siblings went to a Swedish speaking school, they still figured out Finnish was the important language to speak and stopped speaking Swedish to their mother and told her they didn’t want to speak it anymore. So she stopped speaking Swedish to them. DH really regrets doing this now and insists he will always speak to his kids in Finnish no matter what they say. But this seems to be a normal story for bilingual children. It’s a normal phase of growing up.

4) Multilingualism is a start, not an end. Humans’ ability to retain languages is dependent on their ability to continue using it. No matter how much effort you put into their multilingualism at a young age, it’s the rest of their lives that will determine if they maintain it. Again, my husband’s Swedish is a perfect example of this. Since moving to the US, he has almost completely stopped speaking Swedish. He still reads it quite a bit and speaks the weird Swedish-Finnish combination used by his family, but practically no pure Swedish. When we went to Stockholm in December, his Swedish was so rusty, it was quicker for me to figure out what they were saying to him in Swedish and and answer in English than for him to answer in Swedish. In the end, both he and the Swedes just ended up speaking English because it was faster. He’s still trilingual, but he needs some WD-40 to get out the squeaks. My kids may be trilingual now, but whether or not they can still speak their languages well at 30 is firmly out of my control.

So I’ve given up worrying about keeping all of the languages in balance. They more or less are. We read an English book and a German book before naptime and DH reads a Finnish book before bed. We usually watch an English show (Dora) after naptime, then Sandmännchen (German) and Palomies Sami (Finnish, Fireman Sam) before bedtime. There is a sort of balance and it seems to be working. Tweaking it at the moment probably wouldn’t bring much improvement.

Is My Son Dyslexic?

Alpha, writing his name

I’m beginning to suspect that Alpha may be dyslexic.

Since my husband is dyslexic, we’ve always been aware of the possibility of having children with dyslexia since it is genetic, but I’ve been wondering more and more since Alpha’s last parent teacher conference in April, when his teacher advised we get him evaluated for weak fine motor skills. The evaluator told us that he was behind, but not so severely that he needed therapy at this point and that the fine motor skills necessary for handwriting don’t develop until 6 or 7, anyway, so not to worry. These tend to develop in boys later than girls as a general rule. His teacher also showed me some of his handwriting books that he’s done, which in all honesty I don’t take too seriously and find it rather amusing they’re dedicating so much time teaching 4 year-olds to write when that is more of an elementary school thing. She showed me some pages, where he did pretty well, and other pages where the writing was very sloppy.

Then she brought out the binomial cube.  “This is is one of the harder works we have in the classroom. We have some Kindergarteners who can’t do it, but Alpha can do it perfectly, everytime.” She explained how they use cube. The teacher takes the cube, which has different colored sizes and dismantles it. She points to each similarly colored side to show the student that the similarly colored sides go together. Then the student is supposed to rebuild the cube. This is the sort of activity that would be easy for someone who can easily rotate objects around in their head would excel in. Rotating images in one’s head is a special talent dyslexics have.

A few other things gave me pause, as well. I’ve been going over the alphabet with Alpha since he was about 2. He knows some letters, but he seems to know them inconsistently. Sometimes he knows them, sometimes he tells me, “I can’t.” (He says this in English, with an English accent, which is hilarious). Other times, he tells me they’re different letters. He’s told me that E is M (which if you turn E on its side, isn’t unreasonable), that N is Z (again, if you turn it on its side, yes it is).

His speech problems, as it turns out are also a sign of dyslexia as dyslexics tend to have problems with blends and differentiating between sounds in the language.

I’ve also noticed he doesn’t understand rhymes. We have a German book called, “Wir Entdecken die Buchstaben” (We discover the letters) and one of the pages has activities involving rhyming. You have to find the words that rhyme together. So it will have have Topf, Zopf, Kopf mixed in with Haus and Maus. You have to know that Topf, Zopf, and Kopf rhyme and so do Haus and Maus but Topf and Haus do not. He doesn’t get it. I explained to him that these are words that have the same sound at the end. tOPF, zOPF, kOPF, but he doesn’t get it. How do you explain rhyming? Don’t people just GET rhyming? My husband told me he didn’t understand how rhyming worked until he finally figured it out when he was 16. His lack of understanding contributed to his long-standing hatred of poetry. We did another worksheet from a German book that involved drawing lines to connect rhyming objects. On the top row were:


On the bottom row were:


Now, if even without knowing German, can you figure out which of those words would rhyme? He pointed to each object and said what they were and then I pointed to mouse. “What rhymes with mouse?” I asked him. “Ummmmmmm….” he looked at the paper and then pointed at nose. “Nope,” I said. He tried again, each time looking at me to see if it was the right answer. He did get ‘Hase’ and ‘Nase’ right, mainly because by the time he got to the rabbit, nose was the only thing on the bottom row that hadn’t been crossed off.

He also mixes up he/she/it a lot when he speaks. I thought this was my fault because I make a lot of gender mistakes in German, but my husband does this all the time, too. He will often tell me things like “My sister got his apartment today.”or “His husband….” He tried blaming this on Finnish, which does not differentiate between he and she, but I pointed out that he learned Swedish at the same time and Swedish does, so that doesn’t explain why he does it all the time in English. Apparently dyslexics do that a lot, too.

Here is a full list of dyslexic symptoms Alpha presents that we’ve noticed so far:

  • Difficulty pronouncing words
  • Difficulty with before/after, left/right, and so on (he often tells me in German, “Ich gehe auf die Küche” (I’m going on the Kitchen) when he means “Ich gehe in die Küche”)
  • Difficulty learning the alphabet, nursery rhymes or songs
  • Difficulty with word retrieval or naming problems (we notice this when DH reads to him at night and asks him what things are in Finnish, which he knows, but he just can’t find the word  and during the speech evaluations and vocabulary tests he did. There were many words, like finger, I knew he knew but he couldn’t find them during the evaluation)
  • Difficulty identifying or generating rhyming words, or counting syllables in words (phonological awareness)
  • Difficulty hearing and manipulating sounds in words (phonemic awareness)
  • Difficulty in learning the sounds of letters (phonics)–he tells me ah-ah-Musik. What? There’s no a in that word!
  • Difficulty in remembering names and shapes of letters (he’s still very young for this, but he spent all last year in Kindergarten working on writing his name and hasn’t come as far as many of his classmates)
  • Inconsistent schoolwork
  • Relatives may have similar problems
  • Poor or slow handwriting (not too applicable for him since he’s so young, but again, compared to other kids in his preschool, his handwriting is very bad)
  • Poor fine motor skills
  • Difficulty remembering the kinesthetic movements to form letters correctly
  • Difficulty coordinating facial muscles to produce sounds
  • Overwhelmed by too much input

These are only the ones from the list that are relevant now, to a preschooler. My husband and I have discussed this a lot in the last few days and I’m reading a few books on dyslexia, including the one that helped my husband stop feeling like he was an idiot all the time (The Gift of Dyslexia), in order to learn more about it.

Once he starts his speech therapy in August, I will discuss our suspicions with his speech therapist and see what she thinks and then find out where we go to have The Full Battery of Tests done.

In the meantime, we’re changing the way we educate him. We’re not going to be sending him back to preschool in the fall (I still need to call his school and de-enroll him). This is for numerous reasons. First off, he needs to spend a lot of time working on strengthening his fine motor skills and apparently MORE writing practice is not the way to go about this. Instead, we will be doing zero writing whatsoever and concentrating on cutting activities, pinching activities, playing with playdo and coloring with crayons. These build the motor skills necessary to write without frustrating him. Secondly, I don’t want him to start thinking that reading and writing are things that other people can do but he can’t because he’s too stupid, which is a feeling my husband basically internalized from being in school. Finally, no preschool will free up more of our time and funds for intensive speech therapy, which will probably be more helpful for his speech at this point than preschool.

I’m working on putting together a Kindergarten homeschooling plan. Although I’m not required to officially do any schooling as a homeschooler until a child turns 6 where I live, I figure a year of getting into the habit of doing it without any pressure will be good for me.

We’re starting off with doing basic phonics, which will be easier once he can pronounce more letters accurately. But since we’ll be starting with A and working our way through the vowels, we have plenty of time for his speech therapy to take effect before we get to the consonant sounds. We’ll spend as much time as necessary with each letter as it takes for him to be able to automatically say what letter it is and what sound it makes in German, English and Finnish. We will also be doing more hands-on letter making activities. I will hopefully come up with more ideas as I continue to read and learn about it.

I know some of you are probably wondering if we should really continue with the other languages? Aren’t dyslexics supposed to be really bad at learning foreign languages? They are. My husband has always stated that he is really bad at languages and he speaks English, Finnish, and Swedish fluently with good working knowledge of German, Norwegian and Danish. Also, it’s important to note the difference between foreign languages and languages you’re born speaking. Since Alpha has had English, German and Finnish in his life since he was born, none of these languages are foreign to him, they’re all native languages. In some ways, this might help him if he is dyslexic because while English has one of the most opaque orthographies in the world (which means it’s very difficult for dyslexics to learn to read and write English), Finnish is one of the most transparent while German falls somewhere in between. Multilingualism also helps strengthen executive control, something dyslexics may have trouble with, and the ability to zero in on important details.

However, I am concerned that the fact he is trilingual will alternately mask some symptoms while making others appear worse. I’m worried that people will (again) tell us its because he’s trilingual and we should drop a language or two because it’s too much. Or that it’s just because he’s trilingual and we should wait a while until he is stronger in all languages and see if the problems persist. However, we’ve already found out that he’s performing normally in all three languages. So this is irrelevant.

As far as making symptoms appear worse, I found a whole paper about bilinguals and dyslexia online. I’m currently reading it and it does outline some difficulties in evaluating and teaching bilingual children in Britain, but it appears to concentrate mainly on sequential bilingualism.

We Have a Speech Pathologist

After 4 months of calling people, waiting, calling more people, waiting more and not having people call us back, we finally have a speech therapist and it’s right close to home.

As some of you might remember, we originally went to the The Local Public School’s speech therapist to get Alpha’s speech evaluated. We had our first evaluation in February and our second one a month later, during which she told she’d like us to find someone who could evaluate his speech in German before moving forward. I called her twice since then and the second time, she never called back. Now it’s summer and I don’t know that she’s actually still available, so I don’t know if I’ll even bother.

However, when we took Alpha to be evaluated for motor skill weeknesses, I discussed our difficulties finding a speech pathologist with the occupational therapist and she said she’d talk to their speech therapist. Lo and behold, she called us back and said that their speech therapist had had German in high school and was willing to see Alpha and see what she could do.

At the end of his evaluation, she used the iPad to occupy him and talked to me about his speech. “Even without being fluent in German, I can tell that he qualifies for speech therapy in the public school system as he definitely has developmental speech delays.” Her evaluation showed that he has difficulties with the following sounds: N, H, D, G, V, th, TH, L, Er, S, Z, Sh, Z, Sh, Zh, Ch, and Dj. Furthermore, all blends are reduced. Sl becomes a mispronounced L, sp becomes p and gr become a rough g. “Looking at all the sounds he has difficulties with, it’s no wonder he’s hard to understand.” Her opinion was that the speech therapist in our town simply didn’t want to deal with a complicated case and was basically hoping we’d find someone else.

I’m a bit annoyed about that because, first of all, as property owners, a significant amount of our taxes directly pay for the schools. Secondly, since we have children, we are entitled to send our children there for special needs services, even if we don’t send our children to that school. When she asked us what our educational plans were, I told her honestly that we planned on homeschooling because we disagreed paedegogically with the way schools were run. I don’t know if that counted against me, I know of other homeschooling families in the area who use special services from the school. Lastly, throughout all of our contact, she spoke very politely about us raising our son multilingually and couched her statements with things like, “I want to deal with this politely, I don’t want to offend,” and so on and so forth. Now I feel like she was using these statements to express her dislike of the situation instead of honestly expressing herself because nowadays the vast majority of speech pathologists should be aware that raising a child multilingually is not a problem and there is no evidence suggesting multilingual children exhibiting speech disorders do better with one language.

Plus, she always spoke in this high-pitched baby voice that was seriously annoying.

Our current speech therapist is much more up front and direct with us, which I like.  This past week, DH took Alpha there to get a vocabulary test done because she wanted to see where his vocabulary was in all of his languages. She told DH afterwards that based on his performance in the speech evaluation, she would have pegged him at being about 16 months behind in both enunciation and vocabulary. But his performance in the vocabulary test suggested this is not true. Since my husband took him, they were able to do vocabulary tests in all three languages. The speech therapist did English, then my husband translated the words into Finnish and German. German was a bit tricky since DH didn’t know all the words and was incapable of pronouncing some of them so that Alpha could understand.  At any rate, with 100 being normal for a child of his age, he scored 99 in German, 98 in Finnish and 92 in English. A standard deviation was 15 points away from 100 in either direction. His results place him firmly in the normal range for vocabulary. It’s important to note that this isn’t necessarily a kosher method of measuring vocabulary in multilingual children, but it’s the best we could do. She also tested active vocabulary and he scored much lower: 84, which puts him at one standard deviation below the norm. However, she commented that she didn’t count this as a valid score as Alpha was visibly tired when they started this test, failed to answer many of the questions and a lot of his responses were incomprehensible as a result. They also ended before they reached the minimum number of questions necessary to calculate an accurate result. So she recommends retesting in 6 months when his pronunciation has improved.

Overall, I’m very happy with how she’s handling Alpha’s case. She notes that it is a unique situation and has said multiple times that while she is fluent in disordered 4 year old speech, she isn’t fluent in German or Finnish but is willing to give it her best shot. Unfortunately, she’s moving. Why does this always happen to us?

The good news is that she has faith in her replacement. She has also recommended we not start therapy until the end of July when her replacement takes over since it would be easier on Alpha to have one therapist to stick with instead of getting used to two. Once the replacement is working, Alpha should be in speech therapy one to two times a week in the beginning along with exercises at home.

I’m glad we’re finally making progress, it’s refreshing and I look forward to being able to understand the long garbled sentences that come out of Alpha’s mouth.

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.

Never Give Up, Never Surrender

I just left Germany and I think it’s going to take a few weeks for my confidence to recover. Germans, or at least the Germans I know, can be a bit abrasive. They aren’t afraid to point out and critique when they think you’re doing something wrong. This trip, they spent a lot of time discussing and critiquing my son’s speech. Their first conclusion that it wasn’t because of my speech, i.e., how I speak German. “Nein,” one told another, “vom Sprachen ist sie eigentlich ganz gut.” Well, that’s good, I thought. It’s nice to know that son’s speech difficulties aren’t directly fault. I was slightly insulted.

So, I spent a lot of time explaining to them how Alpha has a mushmouth, where he just doesn’t enunciate properly.  A lot of times he doesn’t open his mouth to talk. When he says “ich moechte etwas zum essen,” the word essen is spoken entirely with his mouth shut. He doesn’t open it. When he says “kaputt,” he pronounces it “pakutt.”  So the Germans started correcting and telling him to speak more slowly and more clearly. Except that everything I’ve read has said you shouldn’t correct young kids when they make mistakes because they don’t hear it is as a mistake; they think they’re doing it right and if they knew they were doing it wrong, they would say it right. Correcting them will just make them more hesitant to speak. They advised me to send him to a logopedist, what we would call a speech therapist in the U.S. and wondered why I hadn’t already since he was almost 5 and would be starting school soon. I decided it wasn’t the time to bring up the fact that we were planning on homeschooling and just explained that I had discussed it with his doctor and she said that we should wait a bit longer to see if the issues resolve themselves and if they don’t, we could see a speech therapist then. In other words, she’s not concerned and is extremely supportive of our multilingual family.

But at his 4 year appointment I didn’t mention my continuing concerns with his language development, mainly because I’m afraid I’m coming across as an overly worried crazy mother. But on the other hand, I mentioned to her several times that Haakon seemed to have an unusual amount of wax in his ears (both times he’s seen other doctors at the practice for ear infections, they’ve had to clean wax off his ear drum before they’ve been able to confirm ear infection. I took the kids to get their hearing tested and the ear doctor found that there was so much wax in his ear, his ear drum was almost occulated (I’m not sure the term she used, but basically it might be preventing his ear drum from swinging as much as it otherwise would.) This could mean he’s not actually hearing all the sounds in all the languages as he should. Even a small decrease in hearing can affect language acquisition, according to a pamphlet I read at the office.

I told the Germans all this. “Well, I guess our health care system is better,” one informed me. “We do hearing tests right after birth, then the doctor sees them every few months when they’re young babies, then twice a year, then every year after that. ” Yes, yes, we do hearing testing, too, I informed her, it’s just that my children weren’t born at a hospital and the midwifery clinic wasn’t set up to do hearing tests until recently. And we do frequent visits under a year, then every 6 months, and then at age 2 or 3 it becomes once a year. It’s just the same and has nothing to do with my son’s speech, thanks. I’m alright with waiting to see if his speech issues resolve themselves because my husband had similar speech issues. He didn’t get speech therapy until he was 6 years old and now speaks fine, aside from occasional periods of mushmouthiness where he’s either too excited or too lazy to enunciate clearly.

“Maybe it’s the multilingualism.” No, it’s not. Trust me. There is no evidence that being multilingual causes speech problems. Besides, how would you even prove it? Raise a kid multilingually, then delete all that and reraise the same kid again as a monolingual and see if he has speech problems? Both monolingual and multilingual kids have speech issues. It’s completely unrelated. Again, I point to my husband, who grew up with Swedish and Finnish, and also attended an English speaking Kindergarten. He had speech problems. His sisters, who were similarly raised, did not. “Yes, but he was raised with only two languages. Maybe the third one is just making it that much harder for him to speak and be understood.” Sigh. It’s a typical trick: I counter one assertion and they soften theirs slightly to make it seem more plausible. But again, I tell them it doesn’t make a difference. Linguists say that children can learn up to 5 languages at one time. I tell them about the linguists DH talked to. The mother was Finnish, the father was Norwegian. They lived in Cambridge, MA a while while they got their doctorates in linguistics (adding English) and then accepted a job position at a university in Berlin (adding German to the mix). They then hired a Russian nanny to take care of the kid, making a total of 5 languages. They weren’t worried at all.

Honestly, I don’t get Germans.  They all seem to want me to stop speaking German to my kids, or at least my son, without realizing that if I stopped speaking to him in German, they wouldn’t be able to talk to him at all unless they speak English.  I probably wouldn’t be able to continue speaking to Beta in German if I stopped speaking German to Alpha because consistency is key. As one German told me, “but you need to have consistency when it comes to when the languages are spoken,” (and I told her all about One Parent, One language and the community language in addition to that). Kids will immediately notice if the rules for a sibling are different than the rules for them. If I speak English to Alpha, Beta will pick up on that and figure out that English is in fact the most important language. German has increased in dominance in our household due to the fact that my husband speaks and understands enough for the Alpha to be able to skate by on German alone. Since he’s been more strict in pretending not to understand German with Beta, she’s speaking more Finnish.

“It must be so frustrating for him, though. How can he make friends if they can’t understand them?” I’ve never found this to be an issue. He has friends. Little kids have ways of communicating that have little to do with words and I’ve never seen them incapable of understanding each other and, honestly, the implication that I was hurting my child by raising him multilingually was again, extremely hurtful. So I told her the story of the friends we had to ditch and their oldest son. Thus far, he has been the only child I’ve ever seen treat my son like he couldn’t understand him. Two incidents spring to mind. The first was when the friend’s son was calling Alpha but was mispronouncing his name so Alpha ignored him. Finally, the boy grew frustrated and physically yanked his head and yelled his name incorrectly directly at him, both hurting Alpha and making him cry. The second incident happened a few months later at Alpha’s third birthday party. We were discussing eating the cake and the boy talked to Alpha and said, “Do you want to EAT, Alpha? EAT?” while making eating motions in with his hand. The boy was not quite 5 at the time and it rather confirmed to me that his parents had been talking amongst themselves about how Alpha couldn’t understand or speak English in front of their son, something that is not only inaccurate but also extremely inappropriate. It’s kind of along the same lines of being racist and talking about how black people are inferior and only good for manual labor in front of your kids when your close friends just happen to be black. Their son also reminded me of the Hellman’s commercial, where the little boy goes up to the bride and says, “My mom says she can’t believe you wore white!”

Other than that we haven’t had a single incident of another child acting out negatively due to Alpha’s speech or multilingualism. They just take it in stride. Some older children might say, “what did he say?” But that’s it. Since a lot of them still don’t have the clearest speech themselves, it makes sense. Alpha and his closest friend, L., have always understood each other perfectly and run around mimicking what both of the other one says. It’s never been an issue. He’s popular and well liked at his preschool in even if people can’t understand always understand him.

So the end of it is that it’s pretty much confirmed that he will need speech therapy, which is no biggy in the end, especially if it gives him more confidence with his speech, unless things do clear up on their own. But I’m getting tired of defending multilingualism. Sometimes I wish that Beta were my oldest instead of Alpha. That way people would hear her near-perfect pronunciation in all three languages and be impressed instead of hearing Alpha’s garbled speech and think we’re screwing him up.
“Well, it’s your choice to keep to continue it, but it might be better if you dropped one.” Yes, it is my choice to continue it because I know that even autistic children are capable of being multilingual and have stronger cognitive function and communicate better if they are bilingual than if they’re not.  The benefits outweigh the costs, even if the costs mean that I end up feeling beaten down because of it.


I got some good feedback from Alpha’s preschool teacher today: for the first time ever, he shared at circle time in preschool! In the beginning he flat out refused to say anything. The teacher allowed them to refuse to share but they had to say “pass” and Haakon wouldn’t even say that. Then after a while he relented and started saying “Pass.” Today, he decided to open up and share. So he talked. And talked. And talked. For 3 minutes. “I couldn’t understand any of it,” his teacher admitted, “so I just let him talk and when he was done I told him,  ‘it sounds like you had a very exciting weekend!'”

I was very pleased to hear this. It means he’s getting more comfortable with preschool and it means that his newfound chattiness at home is carrying over to school. He talks all the time right now and tells long narratives about….well, most of the time I don’t have any more than a vague idea what he’s talking about. Today at dinner, Alpha kept talking about halloween topics: about hanging up a skeleton outside the house and other various decorations and how they would say “wooooooooooO!” and then Beta would run away screaming and so many other topics. Yesterday he told me he was a ghost, I was a monster, Beta was a pumpkin and Papa was a dinosaur. I guess those are our costumes for next year!


Beta’s language skills are advancing rapidly. Her pronunciation is surprisingly clear with most words but a lot of them sound similar. For example, nackig and dreckig usually sound the same. Since she’s usually naked, I have to take a closer look at the context to determine if she or something else is also dirty. A lot of her speech consists of stock phrases, although she does use 2-3 word sentences. She asks “Wo bist du?” a lot and adds the name of whatever she is looking for at the end of it to indicate “Where are you” or  “Where is so-and-so?” This is also how she plays peekaboo. If she wakes up in the morning and sees DH is already up, she will ask me “Wo bist du Papa?” and after a few times has learned to automatically answer for me, “Oben” (upstairs).

She is definitely in that annoying toddler stage where she has to have everything the EXACT way she wants it and is a bit obsessive compulsive about it. If she wants to wear a shirt, it has to be that particular shirt otherwise THE WORLD WILL END. If the shirt gets wet, it needs to come off IMMEDIATELY. She still uses her sign and “hmmecker” to indicate she wants to nurse, which is good because the way she says it sounds exactly the same as the way she says “schaukel.” So sometimes I start to head towards the swing when I notice she’s signing. In case of refusal or me telling her to wait, she will drag me to  my chair and tell me “setz dich hin!”

Her Finnish is also progressing. She repeats words well after DH says them, usually with Alpha beside her providing the correct Finnish word. He refuses to speak Finnish himself, though, for the most part, unless he’s lecturing one of us. Today Beta brought me “Hauska Maatila” (Funny Farm” and wanted me to read it, so I did, pronouncing the Finnish as well as I could and using the German words when I knew I didn’t stand a chance in hell. At the end of the book, I said “Das Ende” and Alpha sternly corrected me, “Auf Finnisch ‘das Ende’ ist ‘loppu.'” I thanked him and told him he was correct and said “loppu.”

He knows it, he thinks it, he just won’t say it. I hope he doesn’t have a grudge against Finnish. I hope he will be encouraged to speak more of it after he sees his grandparents and gets to use a lot more of it on a daily basis.