Bilingualism in Love

Love comes in all different shapes, sizes and languages. Helena Halmari, English and Linguistics professor, held a forum on Friday that examined love letters between Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and his wife, Aino.


Halmari has been studying the letters through which the couple corresponded. What Halmari has found to be so interesting is that Jean wrote mostly in Swedish, while Aino wrote in Finnish. She talked about the different ways she studied the languages.


“I wanted to get a general idea of how the languages were divided,” said Halmari. “I knew that it could be very simple because Sibelius uses Swedish and Aino uses Finnish, but it wasn’t always simple because they sometimes mixed each other’s languages together. Most of the time, though, they stick to their own languages, which didn’t make it hard for them at all because they were both bilingual.”


One would expect the use of two different languages to affect communication in some way, especially negatively. However, Jean and Aino were able to clearly understand each other, and even appreciated the other’s use of their first language. Halmarin discussed the relationship between the two.


“I don’t think their use of two different languages impeded their communication because they both knew each other’s languages,” said Halmari. “For Jean, Swedish was the preferred written language, because he always worried that he would make mistakes when writing in Finnish.”


While she has examined forms of bilingual audio communication, such as medieval sermons and recordings, the letters are the first written form of bilingual communication that Halmari has come across.


“I haven’t looked at letters that were like this before,” Halmari said. “In my research, I’ve looked at bilingual spoken language like recordings, and even email correspondence. They tend to follow the same patterns, though it’s not as clear, because some people mix the languages sometimes within the same sentence. But in the letters, the division is clearer where one writes in Swedish and one writes in Finnish.”


Despite the fact that Jean and Aino experience their fair share of trials and tribulations during their time together, they never let each other forget the love they felt for one another.


“The letters are so sweet,” said Halmari. “It’s obvious that these two people are very much in love, and of course when they get married, the letters become a bit more pragmatic, but they still always pronounce their affection for each other.”


This year marks 150 years since the birth of Jean Sibelius, and there have been various concerts and other commemorations in honor of him and his work. However, Halmari decided to take a different approach with studying the letters.


“There have been a lot of concerts on Sibelius this year, but very few people have really looked at the language issue because the letters haven’t been available for that long,” Halmari said.


Halmari finds these letters to be inspiring and admires the way that Jean and Aino understand each other, despite their differences in language.


“I think it’s important to remember that as long as we communicate, it doesn’t matter how it’s done,” Halmari said. “Aino and Jean loved each other, so it didn’t matter that they wrote in different languages. I think the letters can help achieve that same appreciation of multilingualism. We all communicate best in our first languages. The U.S. is such a monolingual culture, where we want people to speak English if they come into this country. Of course it’s understandable, but the appreciation of multiple languages and knowledge of them is important.”


Halmari is in the middle of working on a hypothesis that studies when and how the two lovers mixed their languages. Halmari hopes that her studies will enable people to find a new appreciation for multilingualism, and would like to get her work published.

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