The gift of a second language

Photo: Jessica Korynta Little Nikolai knows who he is. He’s getting the gift of a second language.

Photo: Jessica Korynta
Little Nikolai knows who he is. He’s getting the gift of a second language.

Jessica “Dina” Korynta
Seattle, Wash.

When I was seven, my family gave me a gift. My mom and grandparents gave me the gift of learning how to multi-task, enhance my attention control, focus on relevance, and inspire creativity. Every summer I went to the north woods of Minnesota to practice a little more. I would wake up at 7:30 every day, work on my new skills all day long, and fall (exhausted!) into bed after dark. They sent me there for eight years and with each year the gift became more and more meaningful.

Now, I admit it: I’m a re-gifter and proud of it. My husband and I are giving our son this same gift, but we aren’t waiting until he’s seven. We started his training from the day he was born, working with him every day and bringing him with us in the summers to really focus on his life skills development. And it is wonderful!

I bet you think I’m a crazy, hyper-involved parent pushing my son to do too much too fast. You’re probably thinking that my family was equally crazy, but at least they had the decency to wait until I was seven, not pushing unrealistic training on a baby. But let me assure you, I am a normal (for the most part) mom and so was my mom (okay, maybe she was a little less normal, but that’s just the way she is!).

Let me explain: when I was seven I attended Skogfjorden, Concordia’s Norwegian Language Village, for the first time. It was not my first choice. I wanted to learn Spanish, but nonetheless I ended up at Skogfjorden and I am thankful for that every day. That first summer changed my life. I met friends and mentors, two of whom are still my mentors to this day—24 years later—and I’m proud to say that they are my friends now too. I learned Norwegian and opened my eyes to a culture that I probably hadn’t even heard of before that first day.

Unlike most Skogfjorden villagers, I do not have Norwegian heritage. I am the quintessential “European Mutt” with roots in pretty much every European region except Scandinavia. But nobody cared. No one asked why I was there. I wasn’t treated any differently because I didn’t know what a bunad was. I was just a kid having fun, not even realizing all the amazing skills I was absorbing that first year.

The next year rolled around and my mom again asked my sister and me what village we wanted to attend. She said we were going to get our applications in earlier so we could learn any language that we wanted! Well, we wanted to learn Norwegian. It didn’t matter to us that it wasn’t a “useful” language. We’d had fun at Skogfjorden. We’d met amazing people. We’d experienced the magic. And we wanted to go back!

Over the next eight summers, my language skills improved greatly, making it easier for me to pick up Spanish and French in addition when I was in high school. I found my true self—who knew I would have to adopt a Norwegian name (Dina) to find the real me? My confidence grew. I decided to go to college to study linguistics and, of course, return to Skogfjorden to help make the magic happen for a new generation of villagers.

In 2002, my first year on staff, I met Joel “Ola” Korynta and again my life changed for the better. Every summer I would return to Skogfjorden, even after graduating college, moving to Seattle, and entering the workforce. I would save all of my vacation time to be able to take time off in the summer and fly back to Bemidji. I would be at Skogfjorden for a few weeks and find time to visit my family for a day or two. Then I returned to Skogfjorden in the winter, December 2011, for my wedding. Skogfjorden had literally given me my family and we couldn’t think of a better place for the ceremony than where we had met the very first time. We were able to unite our three families (the Koryntas, the Waggoners, and the Skogfjorden) and share our love for each with the others.

Jump ahead another two years, and Ola and I are still at Skogfjorden, but this time instead of a family of two we are a family of three. Nikolai Janvogn joined us for his very first summer at Skogfjorden at the ripe-old age of ten days and now Skogfjorden is his family too.

Which brings me back to the beginning. Ola and I are passing on the bilingual lifestyle to Nikolai. There is research to show that it is a huge gift to him in terms of his development. Studies that show that children raised from a young age to be bilingual have enhanced attention control, are more accepting of other cultures and perspectives, have more flexibility in thinking and overall creativity, and are better able to focus in the face of distraction, decide between competing alternatives, and disregard irrelevant information.

We want the best for him. But it’s not just about his cognitive abilities.

Every time my 22-month-old Nikolai points out the rød bil or the hvit hund, requests to sing the edderkopp sang, counts to ti, or points to the refrigerator to ask for some jordbær, I know that I am doing something great for him. We have given him a gift wrapped in another gift. Nikolai will learn English someday (and many other languages I hope) but by making a conscious choice to include Norwegian in his life, we are giving him the opportunity to gain so much more. I hope he decides to pass the gift on too.

**Note: I cannot guarantee that attending Skogfjorden will help you to meet your future spouse.**

This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.