Last update on July 29, 2019

Raising bilingual families means a mother tongue and a mother’s tongue are not always the same language. Teaching children both languages preserves a part of family history and strengthens family unity.

On February 21 is the International Mother Language Day. These days, we all know that a mother tongue isn’t necessarily the same as a mother’s tongue. In my case, it both is and isn’t. My mum was bilingual, but I only learned one of her languages.

When I was a child, the only language spoken to me was Finnish. It was also the language of the community where I lived and the only one used at my school. It wasn’t, however, my mum’s only mother tongue. Her first language, the one that she used with her mother, was Swedish, the other official language in Finland.

An outsider in my own family

Growing up, I always heard my mum speak Swedish to my grandma during frequent visits and daily phone calls, and still today I remember the distinct feeling of being an outsider in my own family as I didn’t understand what they said. This continued later as I learned Swedish at school, better and faster than most, but not to the point of being mistaken for a Swedish-speaking Finn, a representative of the 6% minority who speak Swedish as (one of) their native language(s). Many of my Swedish-speaking relatives didn’t speak (or want to speak) Finnish and I felt uneasy and different at family gatherings as conversations had to be switched into Finnish to include me. Strangely enough, this continued to be the case even after I had become fluent in Swedish. To them I was still ‘the Finnish-speaking kid’. Attending an international school that teaches the International Primary Curriculum might ensure a child speaks excellent English, but it won’t protect the languages spoken at home.

Today’s bilingual mothers

These days it seems that parents often feel the need to justify to others why bilingualism is good for their children. Yes, there are cognitive benefits and increased meta-linguistic awareness; sending a child to an international school or hiring an au pair from another country can aid this process even further. But none of these mattered to me, however; I only wanted for our children to learn both French and Finnish so that they could communicate with both sides of their families and to understand what their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins said. It’s as simple as that and not something anyone should feel like having to justify (no matter the amount of global prestige the languages in question enjoy).

The importance of passing on a mother tongue

You might wonder why my mum didn’t want me to learn both her languages. I know I’ve often wondered about it and will never really know as she passed away when I was in my early twenties. I have theories but mainly I just regret, whatever the reason, that my children and I missed out on learning a part of our cultural heritage.

Multilingualism doesn’t always come easy – but then again nothing worthwhile ever does. I hope my story will help motivate those who are struggling to pass on a mother language. Hang in there, your children will appreciate it one day. They may not thank you, but that’s only because speaking your language will be natural to them – and there’s no better thanks than that, right?