Von Be Don – Introduction

“Sometimes, in my dreams, I'm speaking a language that isn't English. I speak words, but I don't know what they mean. I don't understand what I'm saying.”

These are the words of Magnús Gunnar, my half-brother. He was explaining what it was like to lose your first language. He was speaking in English because he doesn't speak Icelandic, even though both his parents were Icelandic.

“I have heard songs as well that sounded really familiar, but I had no memory of knowing them. I almost cried the other day when I heard one song in Icelandic—I don't know why, I don't know what the song was about,” he said.

When Magnús moved to the United States with his mother and stepfather shortly after World War Two, he was fully fluent in Icelandic. He doesn't remember when he stopped speaking Icelandic but he does remember his American grandparents encouraging him to only speak English. "Back then people thought Icelandic sounded like German, and people also looked down on the idea of marrying a woman who had had a child with another man. Not to mention that they were foreigners."

Magnús is the reason why this book was written and the lead character is named after him. In the book Magnús moves abroad with his parents and learns a new language. He also continues to learn his first language even though his circumstances have completely changed. Maybe my brother Magnús would have gone through the same as his namesake in this book if his situation had been different. Some of the events in the story and the children's conversations are based on real-life research I did when I was studying linguistics more than thirty years ago. I documented my son's language acquisition when he learned a new language and became bilingual. The study took over two years and conversations with him were regularly recorded and examples documented in research diaries. This study was analysed in my BSc thesis in Psychology and my Master's thesis in Linguistics at the University of Lancaster in England in 1984. In these recordings you can for example hear my son talk about his life in the new country, his friends, and the words he learned at school. These recordings, which I've preserved, inspired me to write this book and are the template for the conversations. Many Icelanders are now in the same position as my brother and my son and hopefully most of them will get the same opportunity to become bilingual as Magnús in this story. As a grown man, my son is bilingual, equally fluent in both English and Icelandic, but this wasn't always the case. Sometimes English had the upper hand, sometimes it was Icelandic. It depended on the opportunities he had to use his languages and practice his bilingualism. If a language isn't used there is a risk that it will give way to the other language and be forgotten.

This book is for children who are bilingual or well on their way towards it. But I also hope that it will encourage all children to be more interested in the language that they speak and languages in general. Children today live in a reality that is completely different from the one of the children of decades past. Many of them live in multicultural societies and because of the internet they hear and use, from a very young age, more than just their first language. This book was written with the children in mind who are just beginning to learn how to read and are preparing for this bilingual reality. It was originally written in Icelandic with words in English and Swahili introduced in a manner that is similar to how children encountered new words in my research. After the story I have outlined a few ideas that can be used to structure and guide conversations about languages and their nature between children and adults.