Skipping Stones magazine

Vol. 15, No. 4

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A Multilingual Life

My early childhood was like that of any other child except for one slightly different thing; I could speak fluently in two different languages already at the age of three. I was taught Polish by my mother, and learned Finnish from my father just like any youngster would learn his/her native language. I started attending an English-speaking preschool called "Honey Monsters" at the age of six and there I learned how to communicate in the most influential European language. All the other things in my childhood were totally normal, not counting the fact that I could speak fluently in three languages before even starting first grade.

When I was still in the lower grades of primary school, I realized that I had a privilege over other people when it came to languages. I could communicate with the members of my family in languages that the other people around us didn't always understand. My sister and I would often talk to each other in a 'secret dialect' so that the other people present wouldn't know what we were talking about. This made some people furious, while others would gaze in admiration. Now when I think back about it, I'm not surprised about their reactions for we were still only kids who hadn't celebrated their tenth birthdays!

I had been able to speak in Finnish, Polish and English without any problems, but when I moved on up to higher grades in school, learning and keeping up with the grammar and spelling became extremely hard. I never really had any problems with Finnish, which I studied for the first four years of elementary school. English didn't cause greater worries either, since I attended an English speaking class and was in contact with the language all the time. The hardest nut to crack was Polish, which I didn't study in school until fifth grade when our family moved to Poland, and which is still my Achilles tendon.

I was constantly asked about how it feels to be multilingual, but it was my Great Aunt Domicela who really made me think about my multicultural background. She asked, "Katarina, tell us, in which language do you think, since you speak fluently in three?" I didn't answer right away since I was thinking hard about the context and meaning of the question. Assuming that I hadn't understood what she was talking about, my great aunt asked me another question, trying to make answering both of them simpler. "Well, in what language do you dream, then?" she asked.

Although it was a harder question than the first one, I quickly started speaking before she could ask me yet another one. "Well, Aunty, I'm thinking about how to answer your question, but it is quite hard since I don't really know the answer myself. I think that the language in which I think depends on the action that I am doing or on the idea that I am thinking about. I connect most of my ideas to a language in my head, and think about them in that language." I paused for a moment, but seeing that she looked somewhat confused I continued explaining. "Well, if I am thinking about my friends at school, I usually think in English because that is the language with which they are most closely associated in my mind. If I think about my mother or the relatives from her side, I think about them in Polish. When I think about a summer spent in a cottage by a lake, I think about it in Finnish because that is the language that the idea itself is related to." I guess she was shocked by my answer, expecting something far simpler. For a while she just sat there looking quite amazed and confused.

I am thankful that I can communicate fluently in three languages and happy that my parents made the effort to teach them to my sister and me. It took the whole family a lot of time and effort to do this, but I think that we will benefit from it in the future. I think that languages and communication are extremely important in today's world. We should do our best to communicate with others. This would bring forth more tolerance, peace and would make the world a better place to live in.

-- Katarina Punovuori, grade 8, Warsaw, Poland.



Skipping Stones Magazine
Volume 15, No. 4, Page 13

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