Looking ’foreign’, sounding ’native’ – the second generation negotiating belonging

Lukuaika: 3 min.

Author: Linda Bäckman

People born to parents who immigrated are often said to be living “between two worlds”. While this may to some extent be in accordance with people’s lived experience, we must look deeper at what this means, rather than merely stating that this is the case. Constructions of “us” and “them” are inevitable: to belong to something always implies a boundary to someone who does not belong. These constructions always have consequences, but when it comes to constructions such as the national identity, these are particularly meaningful. A lot of power lies in language, and in the stories upon which representations of national identity are built.

In my doctoral thesis, I have studied constructions of identity based on interviews conducted with twelve adults in three cities: Turku in Finland, Malmö in Sweden, and Birmingham in the United Kingdom. The main aim was to find out how language is talked about among people born to migrant parents across these three national contexts.

Talk about language is always about more than language, as Kathryn Woolard (1998) writes. Ideologies about language at the level of the individual and society always include ideals about how things should be. Concerning newcomers, proficiency in the dominant language of society is often seen as a measure for immigrants’ successful integration. Language can, therefore, be used as a nominator of belonging or non-belonging to the national community and invested with different values. For instance, my participants considered that efforts were needed to maintain the parental language, while the dominant language of society was seen as having been acquired ‘automatically’ from schooling and peers.

Concepts such as ‘mother tongue’, traditionally understood as the first language a person learns and at the same time the language they feel most comfortable speaking, were more complex, and many participants found it difficult to define what they considered their mother tongue. Moreover, what was particular among all Turku participants, and many of those in Malmö, was that they regularly received compliments for their ‘good Finnish/Swedish’.

’Hei sähän puhut tosi hyvää suomea’

‘Hey you speak Finnish really well’

In this kind of well-meaning compliments, the participants were ‘othered’: even if they themselves at times identify as Finnish or Swedish, the compliments are a regular reminder that they are seen as different. With reference to similar examples, Fatima El-Tayeb (2011) points out that these events, in which a person “looks foreign” but sounds “native”, are constantly perceived as new and remarkable, because the shared story of European identity excludes immigrants, their children and grandchildren. What is seen as “Finnish”, “Swedish”, “British” or “European” depends on how they have been portrayed in narratives of a shared history and identity. Language often has a central place in this, as an element that binds a people together. If knowledge in the dominant language of society is seen as a criterion for integration, these compliments show that not even seemingly “perfect” knowledge is enough to guarantee belonging in other people’s perceptions.

The same evening that a man stabbed 10 people in the city centre of Turku a few months ago, the Minister of the Interior Paula Risikko commented that the suspect was a “foreign-looking man”. What does this kind of categorisation imply for all non-white people who identify as Finnish? What does it mean for representations of Finnishness in a larger sense? This is an example of how boundaries are drawn between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, and what consequences they possibly have for people’s lives.

It is time to view migration patterns from the 1990s as part of history, rather than to portray them as recent developments. Stories about who we are need to be re-written, so that the representations better match the reality that has existed for decades. More inclusive constructions of national identities, which do not presuppose racialised or ethnicised understandings of belonging, might make it possible to move beyond the trope of the ‘second generation’, as well as future generations, as “living between two worlds”.


El-Tayeb, Fatima (2011) European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Woolard, Kathryn (1998) Introduction. In Schieffelin, B., Woolard, K. & Kroskrity, P. (eds). Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The blog text is based on the lectio percursoriae given at the public defence at Åbo Akademi University October 20th 2017.