Listening To A Familiar Language


It was a snowy December, and I found myself sitting at my Aunt AnnaLiisa’s table in Finland, enjoying delicious pulla ja kahvia while the Finns spoke. I knew enough Finnish to order food at a café or take public transport, but not enough to converse with my family. (Or anyone, for that matter.) Still, I managed to understand by listening: to the intonation, the sighs, the unspoken cues, the different ways one word, joo, can be delivered. It can be delivered with surprise, “JOO!” With concern, “Joo….” With humor “Jooooooo!” With disgust, “joo.” I love the wonderful staccato sound of the language. Some people appreciate the pretty, lilting sound of French or the rich, joyous sound of Italian. That’s fine. But give me the soothing, practical, rat-a-tat-tat of Finnish any day.

Tämä lintu istuu vanha puu.

(That means, “This bird is sitting in that old tree.”)

After a burst of laughter, my Aunt turned to me and said in broken English, “Saara, we talk of who is best in our family. Best in different things. Your mother has best memory. Antti is best to make us laugh. How are you best?” I took a sip of kahvia and said, “I’m the best listener.”

There was more laughter as AnnaLiisa said, “You don’t have a choice!”

And I guess I never did. Finnish is the language I listened to in the womb as my mother told me to come out early because she wanted a Pisces, not an Aries. (I was obedient—but just barely. March 19th, yo!) The hymns she sang in the shower were Finnish. The swear words she snarled when she and my father divorced were most definitely Finnish.


But she did not speak Finnish to me when I was growing up. Sure, she taught me how to say The Lord’s Prayer (God’s nationality was up for grabs, so why not speak to Him in his native tongue?) the names of the suits in a deck of cards, and how to count to 10. (I assume that’s because gambling, much like God’s nationality, also involves chance.)

Point is, Finnish wasn’t spoken in the house. I only heard it on the rare occasions she made a long-distance call to my grandmother or my aunt, or when she visited Finnish friends. The way she saw it, she’d moved to America at age 24 with 264 dollars in her back pocket, speaking three words of English. So it was very important that I did well at school. She did not want to disappoint this country after they’d taken a chance on her. She didn’t realize that kids can learn many languages. Kids listen without judgement. Maybe when we lose that quality is when we become adults. As for my mother, even though her English skills weren’t stellar, she’d only agreed to go on a date with my dad after demanding he send her a letter. She needed to know his English was proper.

Since my mother didn’t teach me Finnish, my grandmother, my Mummi, at age 72, would get on her push sled and glide through the streets of her little village of Lapua to take English lessons, just for me, her only English speaking grandchild. It wasn’t easy. But each time I saw her, she would point to the kitchen table, pour me some kahvia and I knew it was time for her to practice. We talked about the weather, mostly. And how nice it was to see each other. I loved the pretty sound of her voice as she carefully chose the English words she had learned for me.

The last time I ever saw my Mummi was during that snowy December. With our heavy coats, we went outside to wait for my mother and aunt. We were going to visit another relative. More pulla. More kahvia. More Finnish conversations. It was very quiet as we waited. Then Mummi pulled me close. Very slowly she said, “Saara, I. LOVE. YOU.” And so we smiled and hugged each other as we listened to the snow falling all around us.


2 thoughts on “Listening To A Familiar Language

  1. What a lovely tale! Lucky you to be brought up with those wonderful folks. Hope you can speak more Finnish now.

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