Mother Tongue – The Most Beautiful Gift We Have

Today is International Mother Language Day. To celebrate it, we have a blog post from one of the editors of our book, New Perspectives on Translanguaging and Education, Boglárka Straszer. In this post she reflects on the importance of our mother tongues.

Many years ago, I took the bus every morning to my office at the university in my home town Uppsala. One sunny spring morning I noticed unusual graffiti on the ground in front of my feet at the bus stop. It was a mysterious statement in Swedish: “Jag gav den orden” – “I gave words to it”. I was mesmerized. After that day, I found myself studying this graffiti on the concrete every morning for a long time, enormously fascinated. My thoughts always seemed to roam wildly when I stood there at the bus stop waiting for my bus. What did the scribbler mean? What was he/she thinking? What were the words? A linguistic act was suggested; and it was something that made me reflect on the power of words and language, the strength of this short sentence in front of my feet in this public space. A little graffiti that we can interpret in many ways. Words we give to each other, words we get and take from each other, and words we use are significant. They transform people into thinking and communicating beings.

Language deserves attention and especially today on International Mother Language Day.

30 years ago I got the opportunity to learn Finnish. In this picture I am with my host and good friend Ilpo in Riihimäki, Finland, in July 1992 at the end of my year as Rotary Exchange Student.

Many writers have tried to describe mother tongue with beautiful words and emotional expressions. Therefore, there is no point for me to try to describe mother tongue more exquisitely. Instead, I will simply allow myself to state that for me, the mother tongue is intimate – one of the most beautiful gifts an individual can have, and also the most important tool for communication and the way to the soul. Our mother tongues and languages are our treasures that no one can take away from us, as long as we care about and use them. But, is the mother tongue really the most important tool for communication and the most important key to the soul for everyone and in every circumstance?

I think that there is no one truth about languages and there is no single way to define mother tongue, although in my own case it is quite simple to argue that I have Hungarian as my mother tongue. Hungarian was the only language that my family used during my childhood and it was the only language that everybody used in my surroundings. It was also the majority language in Hungary, even though some other languages were visible in various contexts in Hungarian society.

Today, however, I can and want to add that happily enough I have two other named languages with me in my everyday life as well as in my heart. These two languages, my first second language Finnish and my second second language Swedish, which I learned later on in my life, are as equally close to my mind and heart as my Hungarian. I love them each just as much and they are equally important for me for to be able to express all my thoughts and all my feelings. In some situations it can be easier to choose and use one of my languages. Sometimes I benefit more from using one, while in other situations I benefit more from another one. And this is the joy with multilingualism! Also, these three languages – Hungarian, Finnish and Swedish – are my children’s first languages, which they have been socialized in since birth. I hope with all my heart that they feel that all three languages are their own mother tongue.

Most of the people around the world use more than one named language in their everyday life and many of them have more than one mother tongue, making them all the richer. In my research, I have met, among others, many second generation Hungarians in Finland and Sweden, people who were born and grew up in another country and in another linguistic environment than their parents did. I also have friends with Sámi origin, who speak or have connections with South, North or another Sámi language. All these people have varied attitudes towards languages, defining mother tongue not only as a language they know best in all kinds of situations and not either as the language of their childhood. Instead, many of them argue that Sámi is their mother tongue, regardless if only their parents or grandparents used it and they themselves do not have skills in the language at all. They do so because of strong emotional ties to the language and the associated culture. Their relationships to their parents, relatives and roots play an important role.

Today Boglárka has a multilingual repertoire and is Assistant Professor in Swedish as a Second Language at Dalarna University in Sweden

Roots, however, are not always the most crucial aspect when you define mother tongue, as every individual who has some kind of connection to one or more languages has the right to determine what to call that language or these languages. For example, some years ago I carried out a study where I interviewed elderly Hungarians who had moved to Finland or Sweden as young adults more than 40 years ago. Some of them have a purist view of language and have clear opinions on mother tongue, such as “the mother tongue is the language you are born with” or “the language you use without any obstacles in all domains”. However, these people could also contradict themselves and say that Finnish or Swedish was already or “almost” like their mother tongue – despite the fact that they had not learned these languages since birth nor did they use these languages in every situation. Many of these people do not draw boundaries between their languages. Rather, their languages are natural parts of their life and they use them unhindered in different situations and in different contexts. All of their languages are integrated in their repertoire.

I share the same feelings with them. I want to emphasise that it is wonderful to celebrate mother tongues and every mother tongue today, delighting in the fact that we all have right to determine which languages we want to celebrate as our own mother tongues. I personally do not want to only celebrate my Hungarian, but also my Finnish and my Swedish, too.

Finally, these words are for my beloved, old, and always wise close friend in Finland, who unfortunately does not have much time left to share with us in this life. This is for you who opened a way for me to find new linguistic and cultural spaces and gave me many wonderful years to speak about languages and enjoy the bilingual and, nowadays, multilingual lifestyle. With you, I started to understand the meaning with my mother tongue. And with you, I learned to love both Hungarian and Finnish deep in my heart. With more languages than one mother tongue, I am stronger and have more self-confidence than ever before. This happiness with languages is the most valuable thing individuals can give to each other. Your work, my friend, to give me a new language gives pleasure and joy forever. Mitä lämpimimmät kiitokseni siitä! / Thank you with all my love!

Boglárka Straszer, Uppsala, Sweden

Celebrating 1000 books in 35 years of Channel View Publications/Multilingual Matters

With the recent publication of the 6th edition of Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, we hit a real milestone and published our 1000th book since the company began. In this post, Tommi reflects on the last 35 years leading up to this point and discusses how the company and wider world of publishing has changed over time. 

Tommi and David Singleton at the MM drinks reception at AAAL

At the recent AAAL conference in Portland, OR, we celebrated the publication of our 1000th book, the 6th edition of Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, co-authored by Colin Baker and Wayne E. Wright. Since I remember the publication of our very first book in 1982, Bilingualism: Basic Principles by Hugo Baetens-Beardsmore, this led me to reflect a little on what has changed at Channel View Publications/Multilingual Matters (CVP/MM), in the world of academic publishing, and attitudes to bilingualism since then.

Marjukka and Mike at Frankfurt Book Fair

Many of you will know that CVP/MM is a family business, founded originally by my parents in response to being told by our family doctor not to speak Finnish to my brother and me, stating that “they didn’t know what damage they were doing”. Fortunately, being a formidable combination of a stubborn Finnish mother and an entrepreneurial Essex-man father, they not only refused to take such unwelcome advice, they took it as an opportunity to find and publish world-class research focusing on the many positive benefits of bilingualism. Although we now publish in a very wide range of topics – including applied linguistics and sociolinguistics, educational research, language disorders and translation studies under our Multilingual Matters imprint and, under our other imprint Channel View Publications, tourism studies – language rights and positive attitudes to bi- and multilingualism remain at the heart of what we do. We believe that no mother or father should ever be told not to speak the language of their heart to their children without extremely well-informed reasons for doing so.

Although in many cases attitudes towards bilingualism may have switched towards the more positive and even aspirational, this is often only the case if the languages you speak are privileged western languages, and in many cases only if you are of the majority population. It is fine and admirable to learn Spanish or Arabic if you are white, but society might be less positive about you retaining your Spanish or Arabic if you are an immigrant. There is still much work to do in changing attitudes towards languages where these languages are associated with immigration or are minority indigenous languages.

Some of my first memories include sitting under our dining room table, “helping” my parents stick the mailing labels onto envelopes that would carry our first catalogues out into the world. Among the many addresses we sent catalogues to, 252 Bloor Street West stuck in my mind. As a 6 year old child I struggled to understand how so many people lived in this one house! In the years since then I have come to know the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) well, and have got to know the very many authors and friends who are based there. We no longer pack and mail our catalogues ourselves, this is one of those tasks that computers and automation have simplified, but as the editor of my local orienteering club newsletter I have to pack and mail all the copies to our members, so I like to think that I have retained those valuable skills!

The office in Clevedon before everything was done on computers

In 1982 we were already using computers for journal subscription processing, but all correspondence with authors and editors was by mail. We used to do so much mailing back and forth that the local post office gave us our own postcode! All of our records were kept in large filing cabinets and a system of racks, T-cards and folders would track the process of book and journal manuscripts from initial proposal to published book. Sales reports from our distributor would be couriered once a month to us in a large box, and even as recently as the late 1990s we would wait with excitement to go through the monthly sales reports and see how well our books had been selling. These days everything we do is reliant on computers, the internet and data. We only have to log in to our distributors’ reporting sites to get the sales figures from the day before, and we can communicate easily even while travelling. This availability of data and immediacy of communication brings with it a new set of demands and challenges. There is a sense that we must respond to everything as quickly as possible and that we absolutely have to know how many books were sold in the last 24 hours. A lot of time is taken up by responding to queries that in the past would have waited for a single letter, and of course we put the same pressures on to other people.

In the early days of our company the only reliable way to purchase books was via the bookshop, or to put a cheque in the post with an order form from our catalogue. These days the rise of companies like Amazon, Books etc. and the Book Depository, as well as our own website, means that wherever you are you should be able to order a print copy of our books and have it posted to you quickly. If you choose to purchase an ebook, you can place an order now and have the full text, even in some cases with embedded video files and links to relevant websites and resources, delivered direct to your computer, tablet or reading device within seconds.

Libraries are able to buy one multi-user license of a digital book, which does not degrade with age and usage, and are able to share this with multiple users of the library, even off-site users of the library, at the same time. Shelf space is making way for more computer spaces and learning environments, and university campuses are changing accordingly. Of course the downside of this is that the number of copies required to service the same population has fallen, and so in general across the publishing industry we have seen the total number of sales of any one academic title fall quite dramatically in the past 10 years or so. Since the majority of overhead and fixed costs of publication have not fallen, this means that book prices have risen much faster than inflation in order to cover those costs.

While it is interesting to look at what has changed, it is also very instructive to consider what has stayed constant over all this time. Digital technology and distribution has meant that the barriers to entry into the publishing industry have fallen dramatically. In a world where anyone can write, typeset and publish a book relatively quickly, easily and inexpensively, the role of the publisher in providing a measure of review, revision and quality control is just as important as it was in 1982. It is arguably even more important now, given the recent attention to fake news stories and alternative facts. CVP/MM has always believed in reviewing manuscripts thoroughly and as transparently as possible, and while peer-review is not a flawless system, it is a vitally important step in ensuring that the books we publish can be trusted by students, researchers, parents and policy-makers.

Flo, Sarah, Anna, Tommi, Elinor and Laura

We continue to grow as a business, this year we will publish 60 titles across all of the various subject areas, where just 10 years ago we would schedule 30 titles. But we remain a small and friendly operation with approachable staff. We have fostered an atmosphere where we can thrive and grow within our jobs, and so our staff turnover is extremely low. It is highly likely that you will deal with the same people through the life of your book project, if not your whole career! You will have seen me at every AAAL for the past 19 years, but you may not be aware that Sarah and Anna will this year celebrate their 15th anniversary of working for Multilingual Matters, and Elinor and Laura are not that far behind. Our most recent full time colleague, Flo, already feels like part of the family, and our intern, Alice, reflects the values that we all share.

Although my father, Mike, is no longer around to see the progress we have made since he and my mother, Marjukka, retired, he would still recognise everything that we do and be proud of how we have continued to build on what they started 1000 books ago. We would not have been able to publish 1000 books if it wasn’t for the many authors, series editors, reviewers and readers who have contributed in so many different ways. There are too many to name here, but I hope you know just how important you are to us. It has been a pleasure to work with you all and I hope that you will continue to partner with us, to work with us and to hold us to account when we do occasionally get things wrong, so that as we go on to publish books together we can all grow and improve, and look back on the next 1000 books with just as much pride!

Tommi

My Mother Tongue and Me: Staying Unapologetically Foreign in the Land I Proudly Call Home

In celebration of International Mother Language Day, we’re delighted to share this post written by Tommi’s mum, Marjukka, about what her mother language, Finnish, means to her.

The best description I have heard of mother-tongue was made by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, when she described it as being like skin. The second language, by contrast, is like a pair of jeans, which fits well and feels comfortable but will never replace the skin.

Marjukka rowing on Enäjärvi
Marjukka rowing on Enäjärvi

My mother-tongue, Finnish, is the language of my identity, and the language of my deep feelings. Through it I can describe my joys and sorrows, anger and delight much better than I could in any other language. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, nothing releases the pain better than “voi perkele” (devil) and when I get Sudoku numbers wrong, the frustration is vented with “voi paska” (oh shit). Just recently I remembered a word “hämäränhyssy” – the twilight time when my parents would sit silently in semi darkness just relaxing and waiting for the evening to come. Even now, at the age of 67, the word brings to my mind a beautiful sense of peace and harmony.

Marjukka with Tommi and Sami
Marjukka with Tommi and Sami

So how could I have ever spoken soft, caressing, loving words of baby talk to my two sons in English, since I hadn’t heard them from my mother and father? My language to my children had to be Finnish! And it still is. The best thing, however, is that it can now be Finnish, English or Finglish – since some things are easier described in the language they occur.

I have a strong Finnish identity, despite having happily lived in beautiful Great Britain for over 45 years. My accent reveals me to be a Finn even if I say just “yes”. Could it be that I want to be noticed as a Finn? My parents raised me with a love of the language: the happy memories of my father reading Moomin adventures, or my mother chatting and laughing with her numerous sisters. As a teenager, the romantic words of the Finnish melancholy tango songs moved me to tears. And there are so many words which just can’t be translated into English. Just like there are words in English which are hard to translate into Finnish.

So my mother tongue is my identity, my soul, and my tool. English is my very useful second tool, and I am very grateful I have learned to use that tool well, but it will never be my soul or my identity.

Marjukka Grover

Christmas comes to Channel View

We spent a couple of hours last Friday afternoon giving our office a truly festive make-over.  With Ellie still in New Zealand following the LED and TBLT conferences; Tommi away on a long weekend and Martisse at a Christmas party in Bath, Sarah and Laura were left to do all the hard (!) work.

We put on our favourite Christmas CD, opened the Lebkuchen, emptied out the decoration boxes and set to it.  Special features of our Christmas grotto/office include the return of the tinsel curtain (bigger and better than last year’s); Father Christmas lights in the window; stockings for each of us hung on the book shelves (an anagram of our initials is “lamest”!) and, new for 2011, a real Christmas tree!  Here’s a photo, and you can click this link to see a 360° scrollable image: http://360.io/jPzPqa.

Our decorated office

Then yesterday we had a visit from Tommi’s parents, Mike and Marjukka.  Marjukka had been very busy making us a special Finnish Christmas treat: a gingerbread house, or “piparkakkutalo” in Finnish.  As we’ve been learning Finnish as our Language of the Month, we’ve been trying very hard to perfect our pronunciation of various words and, although we’ve now mastered “Teetä?” (“Would you like some tea?”) and “Kiitos” (“Thank you”), “piparkakkutalo” is beyond our current capability!  We’re currently enjoying just looking at the beautiful piparkakkutalo, although I’m sure we won’t be able to resist tucking in before too long!

The tree and our piparkakkutalo

We believe our office might be the glitziest office in the world, but to prove there are others who take decorating or baking as seriously as we do, we’d love to see a photo of what you’ve done to celebrate the festive season.  In fact, we’ve decided to launch a competition: we’ll be giving away a free copy of one of our books (winner’s choice!) to our favourite photo.  Please send them to info@channelviewpublications.com and our favourites might even get a mention on our blog.