Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reading Lolita in Turku or How to Stave off Dementia

While in Finland I have developed the habit of reading two books: one heavy tome at home and a slim book to carry. My recent combo was The Lacuna by Kingsolver and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Nabokov (a slim Penguin paperback).

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was Nabokov's first book written in English. His best known work is, of course, Lolita:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

I read it and marvel. Could I write such prose in a foreign language? Never! Not even in my mother tongue. I am doing well when I order coffee in Finnish. But I don't know enough Finnish or French to play with a foreign language in the way that Nabokov plays with English.

Nabokov's mother tongue was Russian, but he learned English and French when he was young.

I think about Nabokov when I talk to people in Finland. Everyone speaks some English, certainly Swedish, and maybe other languages as well. The rest of the world marvels at the Finnish education system and hopes to emulate it. I wonder if one reason for the high test scores is the importance of foreign language in the curriculum.

The most amazing linguists are the children of my Anglophone friends. Speaking English with their mothers and Finnish or Swedish with their dads, these kids can dance back and forth between languages and they aren't in school yet. What a wonderful gift their parents have given them.

Research shows that people who can speak another language have enhanced creativity and "a more flexible mind".

The flexible mind is about extending the capacity to think. We can consider this in terms of the human body. A person who exercises and is physically fit is more able to adapt to different situations, like needing to swiftly walk up a steep hill. The ability to respond to different physical demands depends, partly, on physical flexibility. In a similar way, a flexible mind is an adaptable mind.

The quote is taken from the Study on Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity commissioned by the European Commission and dated 16 July 2009.

Research also shows that learning another language can help stave off dementia.

What mother wouldn't want her child to be creative, flexible, and less likely to develop dementia? The same mother dutifully applying sunscreen should consider a foreign language for her child.

My daughter has had the opportunity to study three languages at her school in Turku; French, Finnish, and English. She wants to continue to study French and Finnish and I hope she can. I will have to pack the foreign language CDs with the sun block when we head to the pool.

Pity the poor people of Alabama where political candidates are vying to promote the most mono-lingual, mono-cultural society. What will be next for Alabama-a ban on sunscreen? Only time will tell.


  1. Oh Jeez, great! Now I feel really guilty for not teaching my kids Russian!

  2. "Allez, Olla, Ole" (with an accent I can't find on my keyboard!)...see the French entry for eurovision... ;D