Today 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.