Growing Up Bilingual: Interview with Sami Grover

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Sami Grover, the son of the founders of Multilingual Matters, a publishing house dedicated to multilingualism, grew up bilingually in Finnish and English.  He used to be the editor of the well-known “Bilingual Family Newsletter” and currently lives in the United States with his wife and daughter.

We hope you enjoy this exclusive interview he gave to Multilingual Living Magazine a few years ago about growing up in a bilingual family.

MLM: Sami, thank you so very much for taking time for an interview!  Please start by explaining a little about what bilingualism was like in your home: which parent spoke which language with you and your brother and which language(s) did they speak together? What percentage of time was each language spoken in your home?

Sami Grover: My mother is Finnish and my father English, but we grew up in England.
From an early age, Mum would always speak Finnish with my brother and myself, and Dad learned some Finnish too so we could use it together as a family. I think this was important initially – it showed us that Finnish was important to him too, and it wasn’t just Mum’s “weird language”. As we grew older and started school, English became more prominent, eventually becoming the main family language when we were all together. However, we would still speak Finnish with Mum, and regularly visited our grandparents there, including attending the local village school for a number of months. These “language baths” usually strengthened our abilities in the Finnish language, and our enthusiasm for Finnish culture grew also.

MLL: Were your parents consistent in their languages? Did they ever switch languages with each other or with you children? Did they speak with you in a different language when in public or with other friends and family members?

Sami: They were pretty consistent, but they didn’t impose any absolute rules. Sometimes when we came home from school, excitedly speaking English, Mum would allow us to tell her about our day naturally, then gradually steer us towards Finnish. Other times she did use little tricks likes pretending not to understand.

When we had friends over, Mum would still often speak Finnish to us, but she would try to translate for the other kids, and even get them involved by teaching them a few simple sentences. Some of my old school friends still great Mum in the street in Finnish.

MLL: What are your earliest memories of being a bilingual? Do you remember there being any confusion in your mind about this?

Sami: It was always pretty natural for me to speak two languages. I was probably lucky in that I was the second child, so my brother already set a good example. We were also in regular contact with other bilinguals, as there was a strong Finnish community in Bristol where I grew up, and Mum and Dad’s work in publishing bilingual research brought us into contact with many international adult role models, as well as their families.

MLL: Do you remember ever rebelling against one or the other language? Did you have a specific preference toward one language? What did your parents do to help you deal with these situations?

Sami: I do remember one family holiday when my brother and I talked excitedly with Dad for days about typical boy’s stuff – cars, trains etc. whilst barely acknowledging mum’s Finnish interjections. I am not sure if this was more about gender or language, though the impact was the same. In the end Mum burst out in tears, exclaiming:
“That’s it. From now on we’ll speak only English. I’m not letting language come between us!”

My brother and I were shocked – we couldn’t imagine Mum speaking to us in English, and forcefully told her so. We probably went straight back to talking about trains with Dad, but I think the message got through.
Overall, I think Mum and Dad worked really hard to find cultural references that we would find exciting – ice hockey, skiing and, later on, Finnish punk rock all served as a means to keep us engaged with Finland and its language.

MLL: As you got older, tell us a little about what it was like to be a bilingual? Were there specific ages where you felt especially embarrassed? Were there ages when you felt special?

Sami: I do remember occasionally feeling embarrassed when our family would speak Finnish in public. However, this didn’t last too long – most of my friends seemed impressed with the fact we came from Father Christmas country, and usually showed off that we could ice skate and ski. Mum would usually bring in a ginger bread house to school at Christmas, and this was sure to grab my classmates’ attention. Fortunately she didn’t try this when we were 13, but we soon revived the tradition when we had passed the most awkward teenage years. Some friends have since emailed Mum for the recipe, and, in keeping with my hippy tendencies, this year my fiancée and I intend to build a gingerbread ecohome – complete with solar panels and a compost heap!

MLL: What are some of your fondest positive childhood memories regarding your bilingualism? And do you have negative ones that you can share with us?

Sami: Probably my fondest memories relate to visits to Finland, and the close and loving relationship we have had with our grandparents and extended family, many of whom do not speak English. It is hard for me to imagine not being able to talk politics with my granddad, or to understand him swearing at George W. Bush on the telly.

Likewise, my Grandmother’s stories of her childhood and her loving laughter will always stay with me. Who knows, had we not learnt Finnish, we may well still have been close, but I think it would have been harder.
I don’t remember many deeply negative experiences. I do remember wishing we didn’t have to attend Finnish Saturday School when all our classmates were playing football (or lazing around in bed!), but as childhood traumas go, I’d say that’s pretty mild.

MLL: Did you learn to read and write in both languages? If so, how did you learn this in the non-community language?

Sami: I learned to read in Finnish first, mainly through my Mum, but our grandparents would also send books and stories, and later we attended Saturday school. This did cause a little confusion for me at first when I started to read in English, as the Finnish language is spelt very phonetically. I just couldn’t understand why “telephone” would not have the letter “f” in it, or how “pie” and “sky” could rhyme. This soon cleared up though with a bit of extra attention. I think Mum and Dad were pretty good about explaining to our teachers what the possible causes were, and we were blessed with teachers who didn’t mind a little parental input.

MLL: Did you travel to your family’s second country often? Did you ever travel there alone? Did you ever live there and/or go to school there? If so, what was this like?

Sami: As mentioned above, we traveled often as a family and, when I was about 7 or 8, my brother and I spend 4 months there attending school. I think this was a very important and formative part of my life – learning the language, but also learning how to be a typical Finnish boy. I’m not sure whether Mum was delighted or horrified at some of the language we picked up from the ice hockey rink!

MLL: Do you have plans to raise your children bilingually? If so, what will be the languages and do you have a plan for how you will go about this?

Sami: I would love to raise my children bilingually. However, which languages that will be in may be difficult. My fiancée is American, and we live in an area with a large Spanish speaking population. I would love to learn Spanish myself, and would be keen for my children to learn. I would also like them to feel close to both England and Finland, and to speak Finnish, but I must admit that English is still my first, emotional language. I find it hard to imagine speaking only Finnish with them.

I am also aware how much time it takes to produce fully fluent bilinguals – I am not sure I will want to spend my Saturdays tutoring Finnish, when I am usually involved in some do-gooding treehugger activities! I will certainly teach my children some Finnish, and am sure that Mum and Dad will help out considerably, but it remains to be seen exactly what the language mix will be. There is, of course, the added complication that Jenni, my fiancée, wants children with “cute little English accents”. You say tomato…

MLL: In what ways do you believe being raised bilingually formed you into a fundamentally different kind of person than someone who was not raised bilingually?

Sami: It is difficult for me to separate languages from the rest of my life, so I am never quite sure what specific affect bilingualism has had on my life. I think it certainly gave me an interest in languages, and possibly even improved my language skills – I have since studied Danish and German, and seem to pick up other languages fairly easily. I also have pretty good communication skills in general which may, in part, be due to an increased awareness of language.

I also feel that my parents brought us up to be very internationally minded, respecting other cultures and traditions, and being open to different ways of doing things – this was probably enhanced by bilingualism, though I am sure it is possible to be closed-minded AND bilingual (and I do a good job of being just that sometimes too!). I am equally sure that there are many very open-minded monolinguals out there.

Of course, there are also the very concrete results of my bilingualism, namely that it led me to join my parents company for a number of years and work on publications about linguistics and bilingualism, and to edit the Bilingual Family Newsletter ( which I still edit today.

MLL: What would you recommend to families around the world who are raising children bilingually? What are some tips that you’d like to pass on to help them keep bilingualism alive in their homes?

Sami: Make it fun. If you allow it to become a battle, then you’ll probably lose. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t sometimes insist on rules, but you should also try to inspire and excite children about language learning. And don’t worry too much if you don’t achieve 100% balanced bilingualism – it is much better that children have some knowledge that they can later pick up on and improve.  It is more important that they have a positive overall image of their other culture, than that they are completely fluent, despite being forced to learn something that they don’t feel is relevant or interesting.

I think it is also important to listen to your kids and find out what they are most interested in about the other culture. Some kids will find the national sport fascinating, others may be inspired by nature, while others may be more interested in art, food or music. Letting your kids explore their culture for themselves and genuinely get excited about what they find is, I’d imagine, one of the most inspiring experiences that intercultural parents can have.

MLL: Any final thoughts, tips, advice or perspective you’d like to share?

Sami: Only to go for it! It may feel tough at times, but I can certainly say that I am extremely grateful that my parents continued through all the difficult stages.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Katie Brumley June 6, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Thanks for sharing this interview Sami. It’s nice to hear what my sons might say about being bilingual when they grow up.

I find it interesting that you recommend teaching your children two languages while hesitating do it, “but I must admit that English is still my first, emotional language. I find it hard to imagine speaking only Finnish with them.”

This was my biggest hurdle, at least before I started. English is my first language, having learned Spanish outside my home in childhood and adulthood. I thought I might miss out on a closeness with my children if I limited our speaking to Spanish. While I still have a limited vocabulary and fluency, it now feels weird to speak English with my children. Our habit has been formed. Even when I read English books to them they ask me to read (paraphrase) in Spanish anyway.


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