My son was born in Tampere almost 40 years ago. At the time, we used English with my Finnish ex wife as an unavoidable lingua franca. But from the very first day at home, we both decided to systematically speak our own native languages when talking to the baby. This meant that I started using exclusively Spanish in all my interactions with the boy. It was not always easy to keep up. The Finnish environment (mother, neighbourhood, day-care, shops, TV, etc.) was pervasively ubiquitous and the child grew understandably more familiar with that language. Meanwhile — as my own language skills slowly improved — it became often tempting to just give up and give in. I stubbornly resisted and, with time, my son and I both started gradually to resort with reasonable effectiveness to Spanish in our bilateral relations.
I did not quite realize it then, but an anecdote can perhaps illustrate a collateral and unintended phenomenon that emerged: when he was about four years old, we went by car on a family vacation all the way to Spain. We drove into that country coming from France quite early one morning and soon stopped at a road-side cafeteria in order to have breakfast. My son had been sleeping when we arrived. But he rapidly woke-up and, like children often do, started to explore the place, independently walking among the tables (which were more or less full with customers) while we studied the menu options. Only a few moments later, he came rushing back to us and, wide eyed and obviously bewildered, told me: “dad, everyone here speaks like you...”
It dawned on me then that he had grown actually convinced that Spanish was a sort of “secret language”, to be utilized only between us two. The sudden discovery that there were other people (indeed, other world) who also communicated like that, must have been quite a shock.
Subsequently, he continued to improve steadily with his Spanish over the years, eventually adding also other languages, apparently with enviable ease. Today, he manages well in five languages, and this has been rather useful in his international professional career. In fact, the positive empirical experience gained with him as a child, was applied successfully by us subsequently with his younger sister. She now speaks fluently several languages as well and has also found it equally advantageous from the professional and social point of view.
In conclusion, I strongly suggest that parents with mother tongues different to Finnish should make deliberate efforts to preserve them, when communicating with their children. Of course, this has to be made systematically, stubbornly, and with lots of patience. I assure you, results can be highly rewarding indeed for all involved.
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