Following the language home
Speaking Finnish has always been a struggle. During my childhood in Ostrobothnia I only needed to communicate in Swedish, but that big, lovely, complicated language, the one spoken by the majority in Finland, was everywhere around me.
My parents grew up in a Finnish speaking town. My mother's family speak mostly Finnish. However, their reality has always been out of reach and I was ashamed over my failures to verbalise my thoughts in Finnish. Eventually, I moved abroad.
After a couple of rootless years, I landed in London, a city with over 300 languages. Here I've always felt like I belong, perhaps because I’m a stranger. Living in English gave me the self-confidence I didn't have speaking any other language. It was uncoupled from my previous life, a language without baggage.
Now, after almost nine years in an English-speaking country, there is a feeling of loss. The words we use are short-cuts. What I can say in Fenno-Swedish or Finnish using the word "talko", I'll need a whole sentence to express in English.
The Polish-American linguist Aneta Pavlenko writes that her two languages bind her in different ways. The language we speak determines how we're able to express ourselves and that has an impact on our behaviour. But what exactly changes?
That question is almost as old as philosophy itself. Plato and the Sophists argued about it 2600 years ago. The Sophists believed that everything is changeable and that the world can only be experienced through language. According to them, words could have different meanings to different people. Plato believed that there is an underlying truth and that reality is what we try to describe when using language. The question hasn’t become any less relevant in recent years.
Over half of the world's population speaks more than two languages today. More and more of us are bilingual. We travel, move and migrate. The internet has given us the opportunity to talk to people all over the world. Language and cultures interact and merge whether we like it or not.
According to the linguist Anna Wierzbicka, it's the bi- or multilingual who can experience the world through different lenses. We can walk between several different worlds. Finnish and Fenno-Swedish have become a pathway home. It's only after several years abroad I've learned to cherish the reality that only these languages can describe. It's in them I find my roots.