• Saara & Ozzy

Lugha... Kieli... Language...

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." (Ludwig Wittgentsein)

I’m fairly good at picking up new languages. I learnt English and basic French pretty fast and some say it could be attributed to my creative persona. Maybe. But all the same, a lot of Kenyans speak three languages easily, even at a young age. In fact it actually feels quite natural that it might not even be considered a multilingual gift per se. Swahili is the national language in Kenya. It can be spoken by most people and can be used on all official and government function and communication. English is an official language and is a basic mode of instruction at all schools. Other than that, there are 43 local languages of different tribes and communities. Most people can read, speak and write all three.

While this multiculturalism seems great, I am a bit worried that there’s too many young Kenyans who seem too eloquent with the English language than the Brits themselves! I raise an eyebrow when an urban 3 year old is incredibly confident and facile with English than their own local dialect. I think it’s unfair that they can’t strike a chat with granny back in the rural town; who might not be as fluent and is therefore resigned to wholeheartedly smile back with love. I don’t want to point fingers and I know that there are reasonable exceptions. I don’t even think that all of them are oblivious of their culture but I feel disappointed with parents who deliberately refuse to allow their children to learn their first languages. A lot of people are already struggling with the identity questions and I find that’s it’s an intentional subversion of children’s cultural rights.

African languages have very expressive tones. Some dialects sound quite combative, noisy or more like disorganised gibberish packed with clicks, honks and grunts. Others are musical, soothing and have a rhythm to them. Believe me, French is no match to a Luo serenade of love. Aww! You die!! I went to a rural public school in my early age and I remember at the time, a lot of the subjects we’re taught in local language. Heck, there was even a local language class! The objective was simply to allow you to have a broad but basic understanding of things. And it worked! That has since changed and the curriculum we have now is different.

I enjoy speaking my local languages. When in the middle of a heated conversation, I find it easier to vent or even make funny stories funnier. Saara has said to me before that there are things that are easier to explain in Finnish. I can imagine that would be true.

One of my lifetime dreams is to add another African language to my list.



I LOVE MY MOTHER TONGUE. That is Finnish, the weird little language we speak up here in the north of Europe, in between Sweden and Russia. A language that is spoken as the first language only by less than 5 million people (we are a bilingual country with approx 5% speaking Swedish as their first language). A language that is not really related to any of the neighbouring languages. A language that has often been said to be pain in the ass difficult to master as a non native speaker (also my husband agrees).

But what a language. For me the beauty lies in the expression power of it, something that is difficult to even explain. How one word can carry meaning that takes several sentences to explain. The fact that this language still exists is a result of it being strongly attached to national pride of being a Finn and our own cultural heritage. This is probably the reason why it is still valued so much and given priority in many areas of society.

I learned foreign languages in school (German, English, Swedish) and continued to study in English, work in English and then later on a relationship in English. I did learn some swahili during the years in East Africa, but not as much as I “should” have. I am usually able to follow the main points of a discussion even without understanding all details. Especially if they are Kenyans speaking sheng with every other word English anyway.

Somehow we ended up creating a multicultural and thus multilingual family where our two children have quite many languages to learn.

Finnish comes easy as we live here now. They both get it 100%. English comes also easy as that is how we operate as a family (+ watch all cartoons in). They both get it 100%. Swahili is dragging a bit behind. It is difficult to master when it is only daddy and very few people they hear it from. Occasional books and songs have not really helped, but the language is present and they recognise it being “the language of Daddy and uncle Gody” as my son once pointed out hearing two men speaking swahili next to us in the metro. They kind of understand it and can say simple phrases and know single words. One month with grandma in Nairobi will do miracles am sure. As soon as we can make the trip again.

Three languages is still okay and doable. But then there would be also my husband’s local languages. And he has two. This one we have not solved yet.

I absolutely agree with Ozzy that a child has a right to know their own culture and the parent is responsible for them getting to know it. This is a very relevant topic when raising multicultural children as one can never be in two places at once. For us now here in Finland we are responsible of keeping their Kenyan identity alive and well and naturally the responsibility falls more on the Kenyan parent, in our case my husband. But likewise, if we one day decide to pack our backs and flip sides, I will be the one pouring my national Finn pride and cultural heritage on them.

--- Saara -

For more funny and clever posts about Finns and Finnish language check @veryfinnishproblems


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