Double Talk - everyday bi-lingualism

“Skeletinnari” – A word recognized by few, baffling to most, yet perfectly comprehensible to our family. But what does it mean and what are its origins? Let’s dive into the circumstances surrounding this strange utterance.

Even before our children were born we had decided to give them a bilingual upbringing. For me, bilingualism was the natural state of things as my dad spoke Swedish, my mother Finnish and, for the majority of my childhood, I lived in an English-speaking environment. Consequently, a home with two languages wasn’t such a crazy idea. I started speaking English to my twins from the very outset while their father spoke Finnish. It was hard at first because I was in the habit of speaking Finnish to our first children — our dogs. I had to remind myself to stick to English. According to research, each parent should speak whatever language comes most naturally to them, but in my case, I had to “force” myself to speak English at first simply to overcome habit. Similarly, I had to stop referring to my twin boys as “girls” — another habit I had picked up with our female dogs.

Slowly over time, our children began making sounds that bore a close resemblance to language, at least to our ears. These sounds gradually, almost imperceptibly, began morphing into actual words. The two languages took turns developing; first one language took a forward leap, then the other. Sometimes one of the languages would seem to go downhill and I would worry momentarily that we were doing things wrong – but only for a heartbeat because I knew first-hand how bilingualism works.

Eventually, the twins began turning out complete phrases, English words with Finnish conjugations, strange mixtures of the two languages, usually incomprehensible to those outside our family. They used, and still to some extent use, English and Finnish words in the same sentence. This code-mixing is a normal part of the bilingual learning process and, according to studies, a sign of bilingual proficiency. An example of code-mixing at our house would be, for instance, “I’m hungry. Can we have aamupala?” (... Can we have breakfast?). This code-mixing also takes place when the child knows a word in one language, but not the other. Another example of this double-talk might be the sentence “Jeesus loi Earthin.” (Jesus created Earth.), uttered by one of our twins. “Earth” is, in fact, conjugated entirely correctly according to Finnish.

When they were smaller, sometimes even we would be momentarily stumped by what our children were trying to communicate to us and would be forced to do some digging before we came up with an answer. One of these instances was the famous “skeletinnari” incident. The boys had decided to translate the word “skeleton” into Finnish. The end result bears no resemblance to the actual Finnish word for skeleton, “luuranko”, but was, to them, an entirely logical translation.

Facts and tips about bilingual families


Linda Jansson-Färm

The author is a translator with a penchant for music, Star Trek, yoga and food.