Today, Wednesday, it is the International Mother’s Language day. It makes me reflect on my own mother tongue, Finnish. A language I never learned to speak properly and which, in my childhood, I was both ashamed of and yearned to learn. A language that is intimately associated with the Finnish culture.
In 1960 my mother traveled alone with a ferry from Finland to Sweden with everything she owned in a small checkered suitcase, and me in her belly. She came as “unnoticed”, i.e. as a pregnant and unmarried woman. A big shame in Finland, which was why she secretly left everything and “fled” to Sweden.
She did everything in her power to adapt to her new life, and to be able to support both of us. She entered a nursing education and received free education, food and lodging. But children were not allowed at the nursing home. Therefore, I became a foster child in a Swedish family between half a year and four years of age, a very important period in a child’s language development.
At that time, people lacked the knowledge of the importance of the mother tongue that they have today. I learned Swedish and it became the language that my mum and I spoke with each other. For mother, talking Swedish, was also a prerequisite for work.
Throughout my childhood, I was ashamed of the Finnish language, my Finnish origin, and of my mother who spoke broken Swedish. Nobody explicitly said that Finnish or Finns were considered less worthy compared to Swedish or Swedes, but I understood it intuitively. When we lived in Nacka, Finns who were working at the industrial company Atlas Copco belonged to those who were considered to be at the bottom of the social ladder. I perceived it through the stereotypes and jokes that flourished about the Finns.
”Finns tank up and fight with knifes”, was one of the most common stereotypes. Others were that Finns – when not drinking – are mousy and quiet. I laughed at the jokes, but the laughter got stuck in my throat. I sensed the prejudice because my Finnish relatives were so far away from these stereotypes that you can come. I never told people, back then, that I was Finnish. I was too ashamed. And I was ashamed of being ashamed.
It is only in recent years that I seriously can say that I am proud of my Finnish origin. It depends on many different things, including increased maturity and self-acceptance. Moreover, through my university education and own research, I have learned to understand the mechanisms behind stereotypes, prejudices, and We and Them thinking, as in “We Swedes and Them Finns.”
I have realized that, as a second-generation immigrant, I have felt being stuck between two worlds. I have neither felt like Finnish nor Swedish, even though Swedish has always been my main language. I’m sorry that I did not get to know my mother tongue, Finnish, during my upbringing.
When I was little, it was thought that it was good for children to stick to one language. Today, thankfully, we have come further, and research has shown that multilingualism is good for both career and brain development.
Much has improved during the last 50 years. But at the same time, I know that there are still children who are ashamed of their mother tongue. My big hope is that there will be a day when all children and adults can feel proud of their mother tongue and origin, one day when we understand how enriching it is when many different languages and cultures truly come together and intermingle.