International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day

Saturday 29.8.98: Funiest part of the dai was when we got to wear our neev clothes. Second funiest was when dad and mom dansed. Thirdly funiest was when we visited Väänäset.

-My first diary’s first entry, freely translated from Finnish to English


At home we spoke Finnish. That’s why attending elementary school was such a special event for me: I went to a Swedish speaking school. On my first school day I knew how to count from 1 to 12 and say yes and no in Swedish.

Swedish became my new mother language. My English studies started when I was on third grade and Finnish studies only on the fourth grade. My original mother language was taught to me as a second national language.

During the couple of first years in elementary school I learned the Swedish grammatics. It can be seen from the diary entry above, I mixed and utilised it in all writing – no matter the language. My teachers tried to push me in the right direction grammar- and spellingwise, but I wasn’t interested. My strength lied in spoken communication and good pronunciation and to me these were more important than writing.

I continued like this for years as I studied in the same school throughout high school. In my matriculation exam I chose to write both Swedish and Finnish as mother languages. As expected, my grades weren’t great (B and C). Nevertheless I was proud to have two mother languages.

Only when I continued my studies to vocational school and further on to university did I realize that I had been living in a bubble: I didn’t understand basic Finnish words such as circumference of a rectangle. (In Swedish this is rektangels omkrest and in Finnish suorakulmion piiri.) I even had to apply to the University of Tampere four times – not because I didn’t know the facts needed but because I simply didn’t know Finnish.


While writing this blog post I tried to backtrack my life to that moment when the importance and beauty of mother language hit me but I can’t recall it. What I do recall though are the countless times when expressing myself in Swedish or English felt easier than Finnish. At those times using Finnish words or even talking Finnish felt artificial, old fashioned and, at worst, just wrong. Even though I used the right words I didn’t feel that I was saying what I wanted to say.

In Finland people have a tendency to think that mother language is just a tool. This leads to its importance to a person’s personality and identity being downplayed or totally neglected. Yet a mother language is so much more than a choice of words. It is the language of heart, emotions, identity and thoughts, and it has a special status among other languages. Mother language is a comprehensive medium in life management.

To be able to manage one’s life, a person has to understand – not only the words – but also the different connotations, historical meanings and homonyms that lie behind the letters. This became very clear to me when I was talking with a friend of mine who lived in a different part of Finland than I did: I was complaning about a flat bicycle tire but to him it sounded like I was talking about female condoms. (The word tussu in Finnish language has different meanings depending on which part of the country you are in. In the North, where I’m from, it is an adjective that something is flat while in the Southern part of Finland it a synonym for vagina. Isn’t this wonderful!)


Studies show that people’s interpretation of the world is affected by what kind of words their mother language has for different things. Finnish language has some perfect example of this such as sisu and kelirikko. These words also represent perfect examples of how a language can have words of which meaning is so tightly tied to the culture that one can truly understand their meaning only by being a part of that culture.

A mother language ties people to the culture they live in but the language also creates culture. A now trending Finnish word, kalsarikännit, was added to the Finnish urban dictionary in 2007. At that time it surely wasn’t a phenomenon known to all Finns, not to speak of a phenomenon that the whole world would know of. But by creating a word like this someone created a phenomenon that is now a part of the Finnish culture.

For me mother language is a part of keeping a culture alive with all its little quirks and whims. It is also something that enables a transfer of information, development and understanding. This is why I have dedicated the past years of my life to learning my mother language, Finnish. Surely I’m getting better at it, yet still find myself in situations where words get stuck in my throat – especially when I’m talking. But as I learn new meanings and grammar, I also learn about myself. Finally I have words to express myself and the things I know. The beauty and strength of my mother language humbles me.

Our team has an unspoken rule that I am the one responsible for problem solving. Yet this time it was Oula who solved the problem. On his own part all he did was bringing up the issue. On my side he encouraged me to do the right thing: to say things out loud.

Oula, I will answer your question publicly. If you were leaving, how hard would I work to change your mind? Enough to make you feel good. I wish to be by your side and see you further develop. And some day when you’ll get a better offer and you choose to take it, I will congratulate you. I will not stop you. But as a friend? I will never let you go.

  • Matti Verho
    Posted at 21:26h, 23 February Reply


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