Taking back the language

“Sometimes I have to pinch my arm when I hear the kids speak Sámi together,” says Solveig Ballo. She and her family have reclaimed the language they lost.


The Emanuelsen–Ballo family, who live by the Tana River in eastern Finnmark, speak Sámi together, although it was not the parents’ first language.

Odda, Norway

“I sang a lot when the kids were young, without really knowing what the words meant,” said Torstein Emanuelsen, originally from southeastern Norway, now settled by the Tana River in eastern Finnmark. To the journalist he spoke the Finnmark dialect fluently; to the kids he speaks Northern Sámi.

“There is a lot of good language in children’s songs, and we have benefited greatly from the songbooks in Sámi,” said Solveig Ballo.

Children’s books in Sámi are a great help to both parents and children.

Solveig is married to Torstein, and they have three children: Martha Elise, 12; Elen Kristine, 11; and Per Andreas, 6. Solveig was born and raised here—at Suolovárri, Holmfjell in Tana—and is of Sámi descent. But like so many other Sámi children, Solveig did not learn the Sámi language at home. She had some Sámi classes at school and took some extra courses, but that was it—until she became a mother.

sami books

Children’s books are a great aid for learning Sámi.

Made a choice

When Martha Elise was a newborn, Solveig and Torstein made a choice to speak Sámi with their children. Torstein took the challenge head on. For Solveig, it was in some ways more difficult. The repercussions of the Norwegianization of the Sámi were still felt.

“Martha Elise was named after my godmother, who was also our neighbor. She and my godfather used Sámi at home, and they motivated me to take back the language,” said Solveig.

She remembers that she and her godmother watched the two oldest girls play together and that they spoke Sámi to each other while playing. “‘Do you hear them speak your language?’ I said to Martha. She looked at me. ‘It’s your language, too,’ she replied. It meant a lot to me to hear that,” said Solveig.

Be generous!

Solveig and Torstein believe that we must be generous with each other for more people to speak Sámi again.

“We have experienced this here in Tana, especially in the kindergarten. Since we are at least one generation that has not learned Sámi at home, we are dependent on the institutions being there for us. We really feel that we are standing on someone’s shoulders, with all the support and help we have received. But we have also experienced thoughtless and hurtful comments. For example, there were some who thought that our children would never learn ‘perfect’ Sámi and that they would thus ruin it for the other Sámi-speaking children in kindergarten. Others have said that the children would speak broken Norwegian.”

Solveig and Torstein learned Sámi along with the kids. Now Martha Elise, Elen Kristine, and Per Andreas all have Sámi as their first language at school—and at home.

Although Norwegianization was carried out until well into the 1980s, Solveig thinks it can be difficult, especially for the elderly, to adjust.

“First, their language was made invisible and looked down upon. And now the young people are going to take it back and start speaking it again. They probably find it strange.”


The house is filled with little things to learn Sámi.

Sámi kindergarten is important

The parents could not give enough praise to the Giellavealgu Mánáidgárdi Kindergarten. All the kids went to the same private kindergarten, where Northern Sámi was the spoken language. Without the kindergarten, the parents would not have been able to make Sámi their children’s first language. Now, all the children have started school, where they also have Sámi as their main language.

In the area, there are now many other families who need the help provided by Sámi-speaking kindergartens and schools.

“We almost feel that we are part of a big trend,” said Torstein and laughed.

Deanu gielda – Tana municipality is part of the Sámi administrative area in Norway. The area consists of 13 municipalities that have made Sámi and Norwegian equal administrative languages. This means that you have the right to receive all public information in Sámi and be assisted in Sámi when contacting the public sector.

Not afraid of Norwegian

Torstein and Solveig have worked very hard to speak Sámi at home. More than once, the tired mother of three has fallen asleep with the grammar book over her nose. But they have also been conscious of not becoming fanatical. The language should be play, not coercion and duty.

“We have learned not to be ‘afraid’ of Norwegian or that one language will displace the other. Today, we know that bilingualism is something positive,” said Solveig.

One thing Torstein has discovered about Sámi is that it is easy to learn the pronunciation.

“The words are pronounced as they are written, and if you know how the letters c and č are pronounced, it will be the same in all words. It makes it easier for me to read aloud words I have never heard uttered.”

“Oh, there are so many ways to write the sj-sound,” said his son Per Andreas. “It’s skj, sj, sk … and even more!”

The boy has clearly been paying attention in Norwegian class.

Arguing in Sámi

With songs, toys, books, and games, the parents have tried to bring Sámi in as a natural part of play and family life. A cup with Sámi words, Sámi children’s TV, music, audiobooks, and apps for phones and tablets in Sámi. A little here and a little there. Every little bit helps.

sami cup

A cup with Sámi words provides encouragement

The kids were bickering in the living room.

“I almost do not want to interfere when they argue in Sámi,” said Solveig. She is proud of her children. “Sometimes I have to pinch my arm. We actually accomplished this.”

What does it mean to you that the children speak Sámi?

“It means that the whole society is open to them. It is wealth; they have a gift that they can use going forward, and they can more easily learn other languages later. For me, there is a strong feeling that we are trying to recreate something that has been lost.”

She said that it means a lot to be able to use the language in society.

“In Tana, you hear Sámi everywhere. It’s a living language. We can speak Sámi when we buy new sneakers in the store, and there are many bilingual road signs. It is important that the language is not just something we have at home, but that it is reinforced in society.”

Parental roles

Torstein, who is from the south, might not have imagined that he would speak Sámi as an adult.

“I do not think it’s weird at all. I live in Sápmim and I have Sámi children. It’s the most natural thing to do when I live here,” he said.

But you cannot take yourself too seriously.

“The kids correct me all the time,” he said and laughed.

Torstein said that, as a father, he has to be able to talk properly with his children about everything in life.

“When we started out, I thought I would be able to hang on for a while, and then they would become too ‘advanced’ as they aged. But that has not happened. I used to think that if I had spoken Norwegian with them, which I know the best, I would have been able to speak a richer language with them. But it has gone well so far,” Torstein said.

He said that you have to find the balance between encouragement and nagging.

“We parents expect answers in Sámi, and if we have to ask for it, we can quickly be perceived as nagging.”

Lifelong job

We headed down to the Tana River. By bike, scooter, and on foot, it took a few minutes before we were out of the low birch forest and walked along the riverbank. Per Andreas sprinted off down the long, flat sandbanks.

sami family

Parents Solveig and Torstein, who had to learn Sámi, spend time with their children, Martha Elise (12), Elen Kristine (11), and Per Andreas (6), who have Sámi as their first language at school—and at home.

North of us was the small island Norsk- holmen, in the middle of the river. There was a school here before. The students were, like the population elsewhere in the area, Sámi, Kven, and Norwegian. In many schools, it was strictly forbidden to speak languages other than Norwegian.

“I actually don’t know what the islet may have originally been called in Sámi,” said Solveig.

Martha Elise said that she sometimes speaks Sámi and sometimes Norwegian with friends at school.

“But it switches over to Norwegian more often than the other way around. I do not know exactly why; it just happens,” she said.

And which language the children will speak when they get older is difficult to know.

“We will probably never finish the language job. But sometimes we should be able to pause and think that this actually went well,” said Solveig.


Translated by Ragnhild Hjeltnes

All photos by Ingerid Jordal.


This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ingerid Jordal

Ingerid Jordal is a photojournalist based in western Norway, with a great passion for the deep north and stories of belonging. She is scared of flying, but not scared of driving backward on a highway in Seattle. Learn more at www.ingeridjordal.no.