Growing up, I always considered myself 100% Finnish and 100% American. I am Finnish on my mother’s side, born in Finland, and raised in the United States. I didn’t feel the need to choose between or split my identities, and I believe that was in part because I grew up speaking Finnish with my mother and English with my father. I married an American who happened to have lived in Finland for a couple of years, and so he speaks Finnish. We decided that I would speak Finnish to our kids, and he would speak English to them.
We now have a 6-year-old, Alexandra, and a 3-year-old, Gabriel (whom I call Kaapo). So far, their fluency in Finnish has developed well enough for them to feel confident, and they are often mistaken as residents when we visit Finland every two years. In Minnesota, where we live, there is a large Finnish-American community, so I have met families in varying stages and with varying approaches to Finnish language in their homes. I believe each family should do what’s best for them, in consideration of their priorities and circumstances. Whether you’re going for full dual language fluency in a one-parent-one-language approach, or you are making a light introduction for a second language, I organized my reflections on my own experience into 5 takeaway tips:
1. Make it your norm.
I started speaking to my kids in Finnish while they were still in the belly, and continued as if there were no other option. It felt a little forced to me when my first was newborn, but she never knew any differently. Eventually, my confidence and competence grew, and now it feels natural. I chose to speak only Finnish to them all the time, and to require them to speak to me in only Finnish. We also reinforce Finnish in the obvious ways, like reading Finnish books and watching movies in Finnish.
Challenge: I’m English-dominant myself, having grown up in the States, even majoring in English at university. Since I’m more confident and articulate in English, it’s an effort for me to improve my fluency and learn new vocabulary on top of navigating typical communication challenges with my kids. In the toddler years, it’s sometimes hard to ask them to “use their words” in one language with me, knowing that with their dad or at preschool they’re learning other communication or courtesy phrases. And since it’s not the “normal” language spoken by everyone around us most of the time, keeping it as our normal means being OK with not blending in seamlessly everywhere we go. I field questions and remarks from curious strangers, like where I’m from.
Benefit: I don’t have to choose over and over or in different situations whether I’ll speak Finnish to my kids, or whether I’ll expect them to speak it to me. I already made the decision, and while it takes effort, it is the default, so there is no decision fatigue or confusion about expectations. They are truly fluent because it is familiar, routine, and meaningful for them to express themselves and understand Finnish.
2. Repeat it back.
Naturally, my kids are sometimes unable or disinclined to speak Finnish to me. At their young ages (6 and 3) we have a lot of first-time conversations about experiences they’ve had without me in an English-speaking setting. So, if they mix in English words while they tell me about it, and I don’t want to stop the flow of conversation, I repeat whatever they said, in Finnish. They will usually then repeat it to me again to practice, of their own volition.
Challenge: If we’re not careful, this can become a crutch, and they will push English. If there’s more me repeating back in Finnish than them speaking in Finnish, I have to stop the flow of conversation to say, “Tell me in Finnish.” It’s hard to hold a teacher role all the time.
Benefit: Most of the time, it’s a gentle and natural way to reinforce Finnish without taking away from the social exchange. Plus, toddlers love to have what they said repeated back to them for validation, anyway.
3. Translate what you read.
Most of our books are beautifully written and I prefer to read them as they are, whether in Finnish or English. BUT I carry the principle of translation. I comment on the events or pictures of the book in Finnish. When I read I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry to the kids, we practice naming the sea animals in Finnish. But the first time I read it, I didn’t know the words for giant squid or plankton in Finnish, so I had to surreptitiously Google them on my phone mid-reading. When my child asks, “What does that sign say?” I read the sign in English and then translate it to Finnish. If we’re using the Bedtime Math app, I read the math problem of the day as it’s written in English, but as we talk through solving the problem, I speak Finnish.
Challenge: It can be tiresome to say things twice, essentially. And it gets hard not to mix languages too much when a translation is difficult. This is probably not as big of a challenge for people (like my mom) who are speaking to their kids in their own dominant language, in which they were educated. I learned the English word giant squid at school, but it never came up in conversation with my mom, nor while visiting Finland. I have to grow my own abilities on the fly.
Benefit: I get to grow my own abilities on the fly! And the practice of translating reinforces vocabulary and keeps our Finnish-speaking as our normal.
4. Use both languages in group settings.
There are often situations in which I am saying something to my child that is beneficial or necessary for those with or around us to understand. For example, if we’re on a playdate and my child takes a toy from another child, I want the other child and the other parent to hear me saying, “We don’t pull toys out of our friends’ hands. Give it back and choose a different toy,” so that they can be sure I am participating appropriately in the social contract. Or, I may have instructions for a group including my children, such as “We have 5 more minutes to play at the park, and then we’ll walk back to our house.” Since it would be easy for these kinds of interactions to add up to me speaking a lot of English to my kids, I don’t give up saying it in Finnish. I simply say it in Finnish first, and then say the exact same thing in English immediately after. I will add, I don’t double-speak when I’m having a private interaction with my kids in public. If we’re at the checkout line and I’m saying something to my kids in front of the cashier, but not about the cashier, I don’t translate for the cashier’s benefit. I think some multilingual people feel uncomfortable being perceived as having an exclusive conversation, but it doesn’t bother me. I do try to be sensitive to being sociable and inclusive, even to strangers, but sometimes, their curiosity is not my concern.
Challenge: It’s easier than it sounds. Having grown up in a bilingual home, I’m speedy at switching back and forth between languages.
Benefit: The group feels informed, and I don’t feel like I’m having a “secret” conversation, but I’m also maintaining Finnish as the norm with my kids.
5. Find community.
In addition to fostering relationships with our family in Finland, it’s good to have Finnish connections locally. We’re fortunate that Minneapolis (where we live) has a Suomi-koulu, a Finnish language and culture school. We have classes for 2 hours on the first and third Saturdays during the school year. I teach the 3-5-year-old group, which includes my son. My daughter is in the higher fluency group for 5-10-year-olds. The kids learn Finnish language, particularly songs and vocabulary, as well as getting exposure to culture in the form of traditional food, dances, folklore and celebrations. Best of all, we make friends. We look forward to an annual weekend at Salolampi (of Concordia Language Villages), where we relax, play, sauna and eat (so much pulla!) with our Finnish-American community.
Challenge: As with any community-building, time, energy, and a little money must be prioritized. It’s hard to forego other activities, but for us, it is worth it.
Benefit: Relationships are worthwhile on their own, but it also provides a sense of belonging. Alexandra had a phase when she was 4 years old in which she tried to drop Finnish. She didn’t want to be different, and said “no one else speaks Finnish.” I reminded her that she speaks Finnish with me, her grandmother, her great-grandmother and uncles and aunts and cousins in Finland, but her worldview was focused on her bubble of preschool and playdates. That’s when it was helpful to remind her that her friends at Suomi-koulu speak both Finnish and English, too. Of course, it’s vital to teach kids that it’s OK (and good) to be different, but sometimes, it’s nice to be able to say, “You’re not alone in your challenges and abilities. You have community.”
I’d love to talk about raising bilingual kids again, so please, ask me questions and share your own experiences in the comments!
If you’re interested to read more, here are more perspectives and information about raising bilingual kids: