Pricken – the Swedish speaking kittenToday I will tell you the story about Pricken, the Swedish speaking kitten, that came to play an important role in my eldest daughter Minna’s language learning. It shows how a little bit of creative thinking can come to rescue when you are bringing up a bilingual child. I also hope it can serve as an inspiration to other parents who want to start teaching their child an additional language.

I grew up in a bilingual home (Swedish and Finnish) and felt comfortable speaking both, so for me it was equally as easy to speak one or the other of the languages to Minna. Her father’s mother tongue was Punjabi and at the time he was still only learning Finnish. It was clear from the start that we wanted Minna to learn Punjabi, so she could communicate with her grandparents and relatives in India. To avoid making the language situation too complicated, I chose to speak Finnish to Minna. I knew however, that at some point I wanted to teach her Swedish – which is a minority language in Finland – and I wanted her to do her education in Swedish.

Minna was an early speaker and very quickly picked up that mummy’s and daddy’s languages were different. Already at the time when she couldn’t yet string a sentence together herself, she translated words she knew in both languages.

When Minna was five years old, I decided it was time to introduce Swedish. In Finland children don’t go to school until they are seven, so I still had time to pass on my other mother tongue to her (actually, it’s my “father tongue”). Minna had of course heard me speak Swedish with other people, so I didn’t think it would be that hard to start teaching her. I could not have been more wrong!

My attempts to speak Swedish with Minna were met by a total refusal to listen. With all the determination that a five-year-old could muster she ignored anything I said in Swedish. I had expected some reluctance on her part, but I could never have imagined how completely against the idea she would be. In hindsight, it is however very much understandable – the language you speak with someone is a vital part of your relationship. Any bilingual knows how odd it feels when you have to speak the “wrong” language to someone (for example when there are monolinguals present).

All attempts to introduce Swedish through songs, her favourite stories, children’s programmes and the like miserably failed. I needed a better plan and one day it dawned on me what to do. Minna had always wanted a kitten, so I said we would finally get her one – she was of course delighted. The thing was – as I presented it to Minna – that the kitten came from a Swedish speaking family, and didn’t know any Finnish. I admit not being totally honest and pulling Minna’s heart strings to get what I wanted when I said that surely we couldn’t be so cruel to not only take the kitten away from its family, but then also speak a language it didn’t understand. It was music to my ears when Minna asked me if I could speak Swedish to it so it would feel at home.

And speak I did – Pricken (word for ‘dot’ in Swedish after the black spot on its nose) must have been the most spoken to kitten in the country! Soon Minna also wanted to speak to her kitten and Swedish became an accepted language of communication between the two (three) of us. I gradually moved to only speaking Swedish with Minna even when Pricken wasn’t with us.

Sadly Pricken disappeared after about six months – maybe it wanted some peace and quiet, I don’t know, but it had however done a big thing for our family. Pricken brought in Swedish to our home and I was able to build on this. Two years later Minna was ready to start school, and it was the Swedish speaking village school she went to.

May the peace and power be with you.

Yours,
Rita

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14 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I love this way of introducing Swedish to your daughter. I’ve thought of doing something similar with our son, who’s currently only six months old. I speak Welsh to him and my wife speaks mainly English. I’ve thought that we could try to persuade him that our chicken Dorothy only understands French.

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      Wonderful – maybe Dorothy could have a French surname? She could have moved here from France and came to live with your family when she noticed that you can speak French! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    What a wonderful story! My DD is reluctant to speak Greek (I speak Greek to her, her dad English and we live in England and she’s been in childcare since she was one). She is 3 and has a brilliant vocabulary for her age albeit all in English! I need to create more opportunities and the plan is to start going to Greece more than once a year just the 2 of us for a total immersion with my family.We already have a cat and I couldn’t commit to having a dog so I need to think what other pet would “make an appearance” from Greece 🙂

    Reply
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      Hi Maria – immersion is a great way to boost the minority language, so that’s a really good idea. I do understand that getting a kitten is not viable 🙂 what you could try instead is getting a hand puppet that only speaks Greek. Give the puppet a Greek name and a history relating to Greece … maybe it has just moved to England and doesn’t know any English and would love to speak in Greek and tell stories about the country 😉

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    So timely – just this morning my daughter was carrying on a grand conversation with her dou dous (French for stuffed animals) and I tried to convince her that her lamb only spoke French and she should speak French with that little lamb so she could understand. She was quite resistant – informed me that the lamb spoke French, English, and Spanish, so since the lamb and my daughter share all three languages, they would be just fine, thank you very much.

    Please tell me this doesn’t mean we need to get a cat!!

    In all seriousness – another fantastic idea from you, Rita! I’m going to dig through my daughter’s room and find a few monolingual French doudous. I know there are some in there!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      🙂 Thank you! No, I don’t think you need a cat – I am sure you will find something which is quintessentially French among her toys! … or, if you know a monolingual French family whose kids you could swap toys with, you could acquire some 100% French-speaking toys that way 😀

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    What a great idea! My son started teaching himself Portuguese after being assigned to Team Brazil at soccer camp this summer 🙂

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Wonderful – did he manage to get others to learn as well?

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    I love your story! It reminds me of hosting a foreign exchange student but without the responsibility of taking care of another human.

    I have a cheerful purple monster puppet that I use in French lessons with children; I tell the kiddos that Hubert is French and doesn’t understand any English. (He’s named “Hubert” because that includes two sounds that are hard for Anglophones to pronounce.)

    Reply
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      Thank you for your kind comment! Love your Hubert – what a clever idea!

      Reply
    • Avatar

      I have a stuffed elephant I use with my EFL students. He is uncreatively named “Elephant,” but he doesn’t speak any Spanish, just English.

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Perfect use for a stuffed elephant!

        Reply
  6. Avatar

    I just found your blog, and I’m so excited. My handsomer half speaks Spanish (learning English) and I am bilingual Spanish-English. We’ve been discussing options for our children (and are mostly considering OPOL since there are only two languages between us). However, what I love about this article is the cat. I had studied Spanish in the US for 6 years before moving to Guatemala, and I could barely say a word because of a lack of practice. However, people were often too fast to correct me. Because of my studies, I *knew* the grammar; I just needed time to work it all out. Enter Mia and Bella (and Mojado, who after a year and a half also wanted some peace and quiet), my two cats. They have been very patient listeners over the last 4.5 years, and I credit them with my fluency. Now I suggest pets and babies to anyone trying to learn another language. They’re much less judgmental than native speakers.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Love it! … and you are so right, animals and babies are very patient and understanding (in more ways than one!) 🙂

      Reply

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