Bilingual Family: 15 years after tying the bicultural knot
Annika writes in her Journal of a Bilingual Family the joys and challenges of building and nourishing a bilingual marriage and family.
It was a hot day, at least by Finnish standards, when we said our 'I dos' 15 years ago. Well, to be exact, I said Tahdon, and he said Oui, je le veux. For our vows we did the opposite and used each other's language. I can still remember mine, which I practised over and over again for fear I would mess it up in the church: Moi, Annika, je te prends toi, Gilles, comme époux pour t'aimer fidèlement tout au long de notre vie... It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon on an island in Helsinki, and all our friends and family were there. Conversations flowed in both our languages, and likewise the French and Finnish flags were flowing in the summer wind.
Just like we wanted it to be in our everyday married life, too. Now, 15 years later, I can't imagine anything else than being in a mixed-cultural marriage. Sure, his cheese stinks up the fridge and I'm not too crazy about the sweet afternoon goûters he gives the kids, but honestly, this is the extent of our cultural challenges. Most of the disagreements we've had seem to be due to the fact that he's a man and I'm a woman, and that by definition gives us a different perspective on things. We both love our native countries, but have come to know and love each other's country as well. I can't believe how many things I would have missed knowing, and loving, about France and the French if it hadn't been for my husband. He, on the other hand, having lived in Finland for 18 years, has come to know the country inside out. "My little Finnish girl," he sometimes says, meaning that I'm being naïve or stubborn or some other cliché adjective linked to Finns. His eyes are laughing, and there is so much tenderness in his voice that I don't mind (even if I pretend to be upset, and call him an arrogant Frenchman – which, by the way, is a silly cliché too).
Since Finland is our country of residence, at least for now, we're always looking for ways to incorporate the French culture into our everyday life. Gilles' parents are an important part of this and we visit and Skype with them as often as possible. His maman, especially, is more than happy to teach our daughters (and me!) the traditions of their father's childhood, which I feel is really important for them. I wish for them to feel both French and Finnish, not half this and half that. Our family culture is of course a mix of both, but I hope it will help them feel at ease in either country. Here are a few things we've done to help this along:
– French movies. The Finnish ones are so easy to come by, but Gilles has really worked hard to build our family a DVD thèque of all must-see French movies. Our girls have seen La guerre des boutons, La gloire de mon père, Le château de ma mère, and most Louis de Funès films, in addition to countless more recent ones. Their cultural references are in place.
– Rooting for both countries. This is relatively easy for us because the French and the Finns are not often good at the same things. Therefore, there's no conflict for us to root for Finland's hockey team in the winter, and the French soccer team in the summer. Last year, however, the French soccer team played against the Finnish one right here in Helsinki. Emma decided she was going to root for the French team – but just because they didn't have as many fans here (or maybe she just realised that they're more likely to win...)
– Bicultural holidays. Christmas is always a mixture of our two cultures and traditions. As Christmas Eve is the main event of Finnish Christmas, we do the traditional ham with trimmings then. On Christmas day, however, we cook a turkey with chestnut stuffing with the French grandma's recipe. The crèche, with its santons, which Gilles' mum bought for us in the first years of our marriage, is put up. If we are at home we usually open presents on Christmas eve, as is customary here, but our girls seem to prefer the French way of waking up on Christmas morning to find presents by their shoes under the Christmas tree. We make a Bûche de Noël (a Yule Log), and a Galette des rois for Epiphany a few weeks later. When we travel to France for Christmas, we bring ingredients to make Glögi ( a Scandinavian variant of mulled wine) and Piparkakku (gingerbread cookies).
– Meeting other French people. Gilles plays soccer in a team consisting of mainly French (-speaking) players. He also plays French Tarot (no connection whatsoever with tarot reading, it's just a card game) once a week. Our girls also attend the French-Finnish school and through these channels we have become friends with other French families whom we meet for dinners or other social get-togethers.
In addition to all this, both cultures are very present in our home through books: novels, non-fiction books, comics, activity books, and magazines. Despite my best efforts there are books on the beds, on the floor and on every table and counter – Aku Ankkas (Donald Duck) in perfect harmony with Ducobus and Titeufs. I dare say it's the books that have helped our children integrate as well in the French culture even if we don't live there. Of course, staying with the French grandparents for seven weeks every summer might have done it, too. Still, books definitely keep it up for the rest of the year.
Thinking back to that special day 15 years ago, we had no idea of all the blessings that were going to come our way. I sometimes catch myself wondering where Emma and Sara where on that day. Then I remember, right, silly, they weren't born yet. It seems weird as I feel like they have always been a part of our bicultural, bilingual family.
Here we are, 15 years later:
Annika Bourgogne is a language teacher who lives in Helsinki, Finland, with her French husband and two daughters. Passionate about family bilingualism, she is always looking for new ways to combine real-life parenting with the latest research on the subject. Her book Be Bilingual – Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families came out in December 2012. You can read more about Annika's book and new projects on her website and Facebook page.
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