Remembering two inspirational bilinguals
Posted Dec 29, 2010
Post written by François Grosjean.
The end of a year is always a time of reflection, on the events that are to come but also on the years that have gone by, as well as on important moments in one's life. My own life as a bilingual, and researcher on bilingualism, would not have been the same had I not met, and become friends with, Einar and Eva Haugen.
When I was preparing my Master's thesis at the University of Paris, I came across a book with a specialized title, The Norwegian Language in America but an appealing subtitle, A Study in Bilingual Behavior. I quickly became enthralled by its scientific content but also by its very human touch. Clearly the author, Einar Haugen, a Harvard professor and a bilingual himself, had analyzed bilingualism in both its academic and its human perspectives. His book was later to become a classic.
Never did I dream that I would meet Einar Haugen some years later and become friends with him. Having moved to the United States, and whilst I was preparing my first book on bilingualism, in the early eighties, I phoned him (we happened to live close by in Massachusetts), and asked if I could come and see him. I expected him to give me an appointment in his university office but he very kindly asked me over to his home.
I was greeted by a rather tall, very genteel, elderly man who showed me into his living room. As he was getting me a drink, Eva Haugen came in and introduced herself. She looked like a dream grandmother with very fine features, her grey hair in a bun, a soft voice and a wonderful smile.
The first part of our meeting was more academic - I told Einar Haugen about my manuscript and we talked about topics in bilingualism such as language planning, language choice, code-switching, and so on. After about an hour, Eva joined us. Little by little, I realized that she too had had an impressive career as an author, editor and translator of several books related to Norwegian-American subjects.
The Haugens were clearly comfortable in their lives as bilinguals and biculturals, and in their love of both America and Norway. They were ideal examples of bilingualism and biculturalism as it can be lived, as well as very fine scholars in their respective fields.
My first visit was followed by many others and, each time, I came away feeling more confident in the work I was doing and more serene as a bilingual and bicultural person myself. These visits had a very real impact on my career and on my life.
When I returned to Europe after some twelve years in the United States, I stayed in touch with the Haugens and visited them every time I came back. Then, in 1994, I heard that Einar Haugen had passed away. I wrote to Eva and promised that I would come and see her and, indeed, the following summer, when I was back, I gave her a call. There was no answer. So I drove to her home but found no-one there. I went to the neighbor's and asked if they had seen her. They replied that she had had an accident and had broken her hip. She was now recuperating in a nursing home near by.
I visited her the next day and, despite her health problems, I found her as lovely and as warm as usual. We talked about many things and she mentioned her move to the Midwest a few days later where she would live with one of her daughters. I suddenly had an idea: "Do you want to go and see your house before leaving?" She hesitated and then declined, "It wouldn't be wise", she said. This may have been because the house had been rented for the summer. But then, several minutes later, she changed her mind and said with a smile, "Oh, I would love to see my home again". So she got prepared and I drove the car up to the nursing home entrance as she could walk only with great difficulty.
When we reached her home, she looked at it for a long while and then said that she would like to see the yard. We walked around it slowly, Eva holding on to my arm, and she commented on her favorite trees and plants. We only stayed a short while and when I had helped her back into the car, I asked her to wait just a bit. I went to the side garden and carefully cut off a rose that had been climbing up the wall of her house. I brought it back to her and said: "To accompany you on your trip, Eva". She thanked me with one of her wonderful smiles. I then drove her back to her nursing home and spent a bit more time with her before giving her a goodbye hug.
Eva left for her daughter's home a few days later and I flew back to Europe. She passed away just three months later.
Reference: Haugen, Einar. (1969).The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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