Cancelled due to lack of interest
I wonder how I would feel, if my parents spoke a different language than Norwegian and never taught me their mother tongue. I think, in fact, I would be quite upset. I would probably accuse them of depriving me from a part of an identity. I would accuse them of not honouring me with a free gift that I instead would have to spend the rest of my adult life acquiring the hard way.
There are many young people around the Barents Region who are angry with their parents who never let their children learn the language they spoke at home. Others would not care less. They think that their parents’ second language is no big deal, and that they do perfectly well without it. Because nowadays we have English, and if you speak English, you get along everywhere. That is, mildly speaking, not the whole truth.
Once upon at time, in our northernmost corner of Europe, we spoke each other’s languages. People in the Pasvik valley spoke Norwegian and Finnish, in the villages along the Torne river between Sweden and Finland most people spoke Finnish and Swedish. National state borders were there, mostly along the rivers, but they were, in most people’s minds, political theory, lines of nuisance drawn on a map. The borders were open, in the real sense of the word, and the rivers and other waterways between the countries were lifelines. This was in a time before the Second World War, before the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. But also for many years after that, the local traffic and communication between the people in these border areas was so intimate that it was a matter of course to know the neighbour’s language. Most people had relatives on the other side of the border, many were born there – and English was a very foreign language.
This summer I spent a few days in the Torne valley, in the village of Svanstein and Finnish-Swedish Pello, just across from each other with the Torne river marking the border. The Torne valley used to be the bilingual spot on the map of the Nordic countries. But the Swede I meet in Svanstein shrugs his shoulders and admits that the two languages Swedish and Finish are beginning to live separate lives, even here. He himself speaks both languages, but the younger generation, he says, does not. He tells me that it is mostly Swedish loosing ground on the Finnish side of the river, but also vice versa. His friend overhearing our conversation steps up to us and quotes an old man from one of the villages on the Swedish side: “The border – what sort of border?”, the elder used to say. “Finland is the eastern part of our country. The border was drawn by the Russian Tsar, and we couldn’t care less about it.” Quite a controversial political statement, so to say, but for most people in the Torne valley, the border really was of minute interest. They lived their lives, and still live their lives, as if there is no borderline. The whole culture is based on this intimacy.
In the Pasvik valley in the very eastern corner of Norway, the river has been the main “road” along the valley for hundreds of years. But in 1826 it also became a border, first between Norway and Russia, later between Norway and Finland and for the past 68 years between Norway and The Soviet Union/Russia. The 84 years old author, teacher and headmaster, Olav Beddari in Skogfoss, some 60 km up the valley from Kirkenes, remembers the times when Finland was the neighbour country on the eastern riverbank. He remembers how people used to row across to visit each other, to go shopping and to dance and take a bath in each other’s saunas. The Pasvik valley was to a large extent inhabited with Finns who had migrated to the north during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the local culture was very much coloured by them. The language was also Finnish. Many children were brought up with Finnish and learned Norwegian in school only.
Beddari, spending his life as an ambassador for the Finnish culture of Pasvik, paradoxically did not pass the Finnish language on to his children. That he strongly regrets, but excuses himself by what was, and to some extent still is, a common view: children master one mother tongue better than two. Modern linguistic research has proved that not be true, but regretting past sins is hardly of any use now. Also in Pasvik, Finnish as an everyday spoken language, is on full retreat. The same applies to several cultural “pockets”, for example Bugøynes and Vadsø in the county of Finnmark, Norway, where Finnish was a stronghold. In the Tana valley between Norway and Finland, quite a few children grew up with three languages, Sami, Norwegian and Finnish.
Please note that I do not so much include the bilinguals speaking one of the nation state languages and Sami in this context. Serious, high level initiatives have been taken over the past decades to preserve and cultivate Sami. Whether this has been a success or not, varies from country to country, but Sami as a minority language, still has a special and a very different status than what is to be said about the language culture in the border valleys.
The multimillion (perhaps in Euros?) question is of course, do we need this bilingualism, the way it used to be, in our globalized modern society? Part of the answer is perhaps the fact that all our communities, big and small, in fact have become globalized, and the need for an even more common language rules. In that competition English is the winner. In the world of Internet and social media, a new and different way of thinking is established. We are not necessarily well informed about what is going on in our neighbour town on the other side of the border here in the north, but we seem to have endless knowledge about American film stars and our Facebook friends in Australia, South Africa or Argentina.
At the same time, and that really is interesting, the local mass media become more and more local. We just love to read and hear about what is going on in our own back yard. But for the media to pay interest in happenings, culture and business across the borders on the east-west axis in the Barents Region, has been a long and depressing story. For a reader, for instance in Tromsø, it seems to be of minute interest what happens in Bodø, and what goes on in Kiruna, Luleå or Murmansk is even more in the periphery of peoples minds. The same reader might very likely go for a holiday to Piteå, a conference in Murmansk or a shopping trip to IKEA in Haparanda. That is quite a normal thing to do, but acquiring basic knowledge about these places seems to be too much. And then, back to where I started, we do not even speak each other’s languages any more, in the border regions, that is.
What seems to have happened, is that the national borders have become even more important than they used to be, and the north-south axis more evident than ever before, quite a paradox in a region where borderless thinking has been the official mantra for the past 20 years. There are a good many exceptions to this thesis, many enough to prove that things have changed radically in many ways, especially on the border between Finland and Russia and Norway and Russia. These regions have seen a new East-West “highway”, and also the interest in the neighbouring languages has grown. In a Russian family in Alta the Russian language is passed on to the new generation, as Norwegian is taught and spoken in a Norwegian family in Murmansk. It is still regarded important and very useful to be bilingual, but where the rivers once were lifelines and your cousin or grandfather lived on the other bank, learning more than one mother tongue seems to be cancelled due to lack of interest.