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.


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.

Speech therapist update

We think we have found a speech pathologist who can do a speech evaluation for Alpha in German. She doesn’t speak German but she studied at some point in time and thinks that, with my help, she would be able to evaluate his speech. I hope so because every thing else we’ve tried has consisted of: 1) Call someone 2) They give you a name. 3) Contact that person 4) Talk to them 5) Email them 5) Wait 6) They email back, wait 7) Meet with them 8) They give you another name 9) Contact that person 10) Wait 11) They contact you back telling you to wait 12) Wait.

We’re still waiting.

The good news is that I think Alpha’s speech is improving. He’s saying more things, but he still has trouble with phenomes that aren’t completely in the mouth. When we speak, air either goes out the mouth or out the nose, or partially out the mouth and nose. The airflow is regulated by a flap in the back of our throat, but if you have cleft palate or fail to learn how to use this flap correctly, you can’t properly regulate the airflow. Since nasality (airflow through the nose while speaking) is a very subtle component of speech, it is very easily affected by even the smallest impairments, such as say, too much earwax in the ears. But it’s also relatively easy to fix, so I feel certain that once we actually start speech therapy, his speech will be fixed rather quickly.

But Alpha is using more and more English all the time. He says phrases he hears at school a lot, like “Can’t catch me!” and has learned how to say “I can’t,” but he says it a long a (aaah), which makes him sound British. I blame German. He also says “Stop it!” and “Come on!” and calls things sticky. But he keeps telling me the other kids in his class understand German. I don’t know why he thinks this. He knows they don’t speak Finnish, but the idea of them not understanding German has yet to sink in.

His Finnish is progressing as well and just as Finnish school ended for the year, he was starting to provide Finnish answers to his teacher in Finnish school, which is a huge step. Interestingly enough, she also noted that he tends to address everyone else in German but when they speak to him, he will respond to them in the language in which they spoke to him, which shows a lot of language-person awareness.

All in all, some good advances as we head into summer!

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.


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.

Language Updates

Beta’s language skills have been growing by leaps and bounds. DH took both the kids out for the day over the weekend and she told him that “Cola on hyvä” [cola is good]. I’m a bit embarrassed by her cola fixation. She’s never had any, we’ve never given her any, but she hears Alpha asking for it a lot. So she has reached the conclusion that every liquid is called cola, except for breastmilk which is called “mmm lecker.” Alpha ends up yelling at her that it’s “WATER, NOT SODA!” which is unnecessary but whatever.

It’s interesting watching the two of them interact and I definitely think that the oldest child loses out because they don’t have anyone to play with when they’re very young. Beta picks up so much from Alpha and the two of them have developed a lot of games together that are apparently a lot of fun. One is sitting at the table and suddenly declaring the other child’s food to be “meins” then the other child will say “nein MEINS” and this will continue. If Beta starts it up, Alpha will agitated very quickly and start yelling at Beta that it’s NOT HERS IT’S HIS. It really makes him upset and I have to try to reassure him that Beta will not be taking his food.

Other than that, Alpha seems to be the boss. “Komm, Beta, wir gehen ins Schaukelzimmer.” He will yell at her. [Come, Beta, we’re going into the swing room] or “Komm, Beta wir gehen nach oben.” [Come, Beta we’re going upstairs]. But today Beta surprised me and yelled at Haakon, “Alpha! Guck nach oben!” She was just repeating what I had just said, trying to get Alpha to look up at us in the play equipment, but it was still pretty cool. Her speech sounds a lot clearer than Alpha’s. His speech is still fairly garbled and he doesn’t pronounce a lot of letters right. Still no need for concern; even monolingual kids only start getting most of the sounds in their language right at age 4 and he has 3 languages to get the sounds right in. His doctor says there’s no need for concern yet and many of the things he says appear to be clearing up, so it’s very encouraging.

In other news, Alpha will be starting preschool tomorrow! It’s a big change for us, that’s for sure. He’s been really looking forward to it and hopefully still will now that he knows only he will be going to preschool; Malla and I will be heading back home. I’m hoping this will build his English confidence and competence.

He’s learned the names to all the Thomas the Tank Engine Trains and was telling me the names, but one stumped me. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I tried a few locomotive names but he kept saying no and repeating the name,” On-ri, On-ri.” then it hit me: Henry! In other news, my son speaks English with a French accent.

Don’t Underestimate Them

Once again, I have woefully underestimated Alpha’s linguistic abilities. A few days after I wrote the previous post, he, Beta, and DH were at Home Depot looking at some stuff and Lasse muttered to himself in Finnish, “Again, I’m being a fucking idiot.” Upon hearing this, Alpha replies, “I’m a fucking idiot!”

Ta-da! So, he can say a whole sentence in Finnish and his pronunciation wasn’t too bad either. As it turns out, kids always know more than they let on.

Today, DH went downstairs to check on Alpha to make sure he was laying down but he was nowhere to be found, so DH asks, “Alpha, missä sinä olet?” (where are you?) and then Alpha calls from the bathroom in English,

“Papa! I’m shitting!”

They always say that cuss words are the first thing you pick up and I’m definitely putting the blame on DH’s shoulders for these incidents. I very rarely say shitting, though I have been know to say shat.

So congratulations, Alpha! Maybe you don’t need preschool after all! With a mouth like that, maybe you shouldn’t go to preschool!