A few weeks ago I had a hair appointment scheduled right at the beginning of a very busy week, in the middle of my work day. I brought along some reading, in order to make good use of the many hours it takes to transform my limp mousy hair into something a little better. I made polite small talk with a new hairdresser, who I will call Emma, feeling anxious to get into my book. We covered the usual topics: “Why did I come to Finland…how long would I stay…was I learning Finnish”. This time however, the hairdresser said something marvellous.
I held in my hands a book entitled “I am my language” by Norma González. Whether it was this book, or the preceding discussion about my move to Finland, Emma began to reflect on her own childhood and experiences with language. When Emma was an infant her parents moved from Finland to another continent. Throughout her childhood her family celebrated Finnish holidays and used some Finnish at home, however there were no other Finns in their community. Emma’s family returned to Finland when she was in her mid-teens. She found this transition very difficult, she spoke Finnish with an accent and had difficulty making friends and fitting in. As I sat listening with interest, Emma paused with a hair foil in one hand and a spatula smeared with hair dye in the other hand, looked at me in the mirror and said, “There was Finnish in Finland, but no Finland in my Finnish.”
Words can be lost somewhere between comprehending what someone is saying and understanding what they truly mean. This is where Emma’s words were lost, where her repertoire of Finnish wasn’t enough. In the very book I serendipitously held in my hand that day, González draws on Bakhtin in discussing the living heteroglossia of bilingual lives – the different places one gives to multiple languages in life. González describes how one language used Spanish in an American home as “the connection of one language with the domain of food, relatives, music and affect” (2001:67). The Finnish used by Emma abroad amongst her family was not the Finnish required in daily life here in Finland. Emma went from using Finnish with a handful of people to using Finnish with virtually everyone in her immediate environment.
“There was Finnish in Finland, but no Finland in my Finnish” – a poignant statement which can be read as linking language and culture or read as a statement on how linguistic resources travel; how people and languages move in the world. According to Jan Blommaert, who recently lectured in Jyväskylä on issues addressed in his forthcoming book, sociolinguistics has not addressed the instability of “community”. Terms such as discourse community, speech community, membership, or community of practice presuppose a kind of static and local reality that does not necessarily exist (Blommaert, 2009: 9). Emma didn’t “feel Finnish” as a teenager and though she has been in Finland more than half her life, still doesn’t feel “completely Finnish”. This is, for me, an exciting instance of when the theoretical “stuff” of postgraduate studies becomes real and consequential. And all because I put down my book and had a chat while getting my hair done.
Blommaert, J. (Forthcoming 2009). A sociolinguistics of socialization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
González, N. 2001. I am my language: Discourses of women and children in the Borderlands. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.