Learning new languages was my obsession. I’m trilingual. I was initially bilingual, with my mother always speaking Finnish and my father Swedish to me. Just before I turned five, in the beginning of September 1988, my family moved to Saudi Arabia. My sister and I started Kindergarten at an international school. Around Christmas, I got a new teacher, who didn’t realize I wasn’t a native English speaker. In three months, I had learned to read, write and speak a foreign language on a native level.
The first days were challenging. I still remember once crying all day at school, because I didn’t know how to ask to go to the bathroom. I didn’t dare leave the classroom without permission. End result I wet myself in class and my teacher felt horrible for not realizing that was the reason for my crying. Maybe that’s why one of the first things I taught my daughter to say in English is “I need to go to the bathroom”.
English as my main language
English became quickly our main language with my sister. Being at an international school, our classmates and teachers came from all over the world; Cuba, Egypt, Syria, England, Australia, India, the U.S., Sweden, etc. We all spoke English together, and that’s what my sister and I did too. Our brother was three at the time and stayed at home, so English was the perfect “secret” language for us sisters. “Unfortunately” our brother picked up on our English in no time, and it became the common language among us siblings, which it still is 30 years later.
In addition to the British school curriculum, we also had classes in Spanish and Arabic. Our initial stay in Saudi Arabia lasted only two years, but we stuck to speaking English together despite returning to Finland and attending a Swedish school for the next four years. In 1994 we returned to Saudi Arabia again and English became permanently dominant for us kids.
Returning to Finland
Returning to Finland for eighth grade was challenging for myself for various reasons, but I’ll get into that some other time. My Swedish had deteriorated to almost non-existent. The only person I spoke it with anymore was my father, who had had to relocate internally in Saudi Arabia for work, and we only saw him on weekends. My Finnish wasn’t exactly up to par either. I had a thick American accent when speaking and struggled for example with rolling the strong Finnish R’s. All three of us kids went to different schools. My brother went to a fully Finnish school, my sister went to an IB high school and I went to a Finnish school with my class’ main tuition language English. It didn’t take us long to pick up on Finnish as a native language, but English remained as our conversational language.
After ninth grade, in August 1999, I found myself sitting alone on a plane headed to Bolivia for a year as an exchange student. Despite my father’s encouragement, as a slightly obnoxious 15-year-old, I hadn’t taken the time to learn Spanish before I left. I only knew three more or less useful phrases: “A mí me gustan las ciruelas” (I like plums), “Dónde está el baño?” (Where is the bathroom?) and “El queso es viejo y mohoso” (the cheese is old and moldy). Reality hit me and I was slightly concerned my Spanish knowledge wouldn’t get me very far. Hence I learnt the weekdays on the plane. Once I settled into my new home in Tarija for the coming year, I quickly came to realize that my English knowledge was pretty much useless. I would need to expand my Spanish phraseology quickly to be understood.
Now this is where I think my Cuban teacher and her Spanish lessons ten years earlier did me a huge favor. I picked up on the language in no time, and again, by Christmas, I was fluent in yet another language. My host mother was a blond green-eyed German descendant, and people who didn’t know my family, didn’t realize to question that I wasn’t their real daughter, and even less, in fact not Bolivian.
I think there are a few relevant reasons for why it was so easy for me to learn yet another language. First of all, I was already fluent in three other languages. My brain was “programmed” to think in different languages. Second, genetics and a natural tendency for multilingualism. Third, the fact that I had been introduced to the language as a young child and the basics were there. The skills were buried somewhere deep into my subconscious, but they were there.
An amazing year as an exchange student
I had an amazing year, experienced so much and made a lot of great friends. My best friend during the year in Bolivia was an exchange student from Norway. Norwegian and Swedish as languages are very close to each other, so we often spoke together both in our native tongue. What happened yet again, was that I picked up more and more of his Norwegian. By the time our exchange year was over, in addition to Spanish, I was also fluent in Norwegian. Returning to Finland was again challenging for various reasons; cultural, but also lingual. I hadn’t spoken Finnish in a year, apart from the occasional phone call home and instead of speaking Swedish to my father, I spoke Norwegian.
In regards to learning Spanish, what I think is most relevant, is that I plunged head first with excitement into a new language and culture without much prior knowledge. I learned by mimicking, and omitted my own Finnish-Swedish-English accent transferring to the new language. As said, my previous language skills were pretty useless for daily communication, so I had to learn.
I was 16 and fluent in five languages. I started high school and added French, German and Russian to my studies. The next summer, ten months after returning from Bolivia, again alone, I took the ferry from Helsinki to Rostock, Germany. This time I was greeted by an old friend of my grandmother, who had arranged for me to work as an au-pair for his son’s family living in Wismar. Yet again, to my great surprise, my English skills were quite useless in this little town. I had to learn German to be able to communicate and make friends. I spent the summer with my wonderful host family, and again learned to speak quickly. This time however, I didn’t learn to write or practice grammar (which is by the way something I have never really learned in any language!) but I spoke well with a vast vocabulary.
German in school
Come fall and back to school, I struggled in German class with grammar. My teacher didn’t acknowledge my language skill, as I didn’t do well on the grammar tests. Later the same year, my German class went on a week-long school visit to Cologne. Again I made new friends and had the time of my life, after all my spoken German was fluent and I could easily joke around and be myself. As we were flying back to Finland, the flight was overbooked and my teacher, praise her grammar, was trying to convince the airline that us kids needed to be on that flight.
Things were going nowhere, so I stepped up to the counter, explained the situation and got us on the plane. My teacher stood staring silently, eventually thanked me for the help, and then blurted out “I had no idea you speak German!” Of course she didn’t, because the language education system in Finland (at least this was the case 15-20 years ago, I don’t know how it is today) placed an absurd amount of emphasis on grammar, instead of encouraging conversational skills. We spent the flight back talking about my language skills and how I’ve learnt them in the past, and thankfully my teacher took it to heart. My grades in her class improved significantly during the following year and Instead of just focusing on grammar, she made a point of urging us to also speak up, whether or not the output was perfect.
Obsessed with languages
I was obsessed with learning new languages and kept repeating the same pattern after I was out of school. In 2005, I moved to southern Switzerland for three months to learn Italian. During high school my Russian class did a brief school exchange to St Petersburg, where I returned to in 2009 for three months to study Russian language and culture at the university.
A bad attitude
In 2010, when I moved to the Swiss-French border for work, I made a huge mistake which I regret to this day. I developed an attitude problem. Work wasn’t going as I had planned and I felt lonely and missed my boyfriend-later husband who was in Thailand. I had a hard time adapting into the French culture. I noticed that I didn’t even want to try to speak French, understand the language, or feel at home. And note, at this time I had studied French for several years and had previously been conversational, so it had nothing to do with lacking skills. I tried blaming everyone and everything else for my misery, and convinced myself that it had nothing to do with me. It was just too difficult and I couldn’t do it.
I went on an extended weekend to Milan with an Austrian friend from work, and we went to see the musical Mamma Mia. Despite the musical being in Italian, I was able to follow along with ease and laughed out loud at the jokes. I remember thinking I should’ve just moved to Italy instead, where I know the language and life would be great again. In reality, the only problem was my attitude. Had I made even the slightest effort to change my bad attitude, to embrace this adventure just as any of my previous adventures, things would have turned out quite different. But I just gave up. My good French skills deteriorated in a matter of months to bare basics, and eventually in the beginning of 2012 I left Switzerland.
Deteriorated language skills
Having been fluent in six languages and conversational in an additional three, I’m actually ashamed to be only trilingual today. Having not used my additional languages for several years, they’ve slowly but surely deteriorated. And it all began with a bad attitude. Because of my experience in Switzerland, I somehow managed to brainwash myself into thinking that I don’t actually speak any of the other languages anymore either.
Why I made such a huge mistake, forgot about the excitement of learning a new language and culture, I don’t know. Honestly I believe they’re all still there, hidden somewhere deep within, and with a lot of work, practice and the right attitude I can regain my language skills again.
The key is attitude
The key is attitude. I admire immensely my father, who currently attends Spanish and German classes, constantly practices his French and works in Norway. He gave me all the tools, enabled me to become multilingual. And that’s what I want to do for my kids too, even if I have temporarily misplaced my own talent. My five-year-old is already trilingual. She is going to Disneyland in Paris in a couple of weeks with my parents, as a reward for learning basic French – which I’ve taught her. The way she lights up when she learns a new word in French is magical. That’s what I want to foster and find again.
Where I stand today
I call myself a perfectionist in recovery. In reality, I’m still very self-critical. It’s been soon three months since I originally published this post and I’ve learnt a few things. My Spanish is actually pretty good. It’s not even close to as bad as I thought. My German is also relatively conversational. It’s not what it used to be, but it’s more than mere basics. Be brave and enthusiastic, throw yourself into the unknown! And forget about worrying if it’s perfect or not! I started using an app called Duolingo, encouraged by my father, and it’s great. I’m also following Spanish TV programs. There are so many ways to learn new languages or improve forgotten ones! You just need to find what’s right for you!