‘You know that medium sized bird, all black, with an orange beak. What’s it called again?’ I asked Mr School Friend last summer. The reason I asked was I’d noticed we had several in our new garden, and I realised I’d forgotten the name, and Mr SF is the man to go to. Not a linguist, he will still be able to tell you bird names in Swedish, English and Latin. So he told me, and it was obvious. I knew that. I just forgot.
Thinking back to my childhood, I knew quite a few birds, and flowers, and other nature things. I like to think it’s because my brain was less choc-a-bloc with the rubbish I’ve since put in there, and perhaps that being shorter, a child is sort of closer to nature, and will notice it more.
Swedes seem to be particularly nature-minded, considering most of us are town dwellers. Like most children, I went to Mulleskolan. That was a kind of ‘evening class’ for primary school children, which took place in some woods, after school, probably once a week. A leader went round with us and taught us nature stuff, and each week we had a surprise visit from a creature called Skogsmulle, who would tell us more. (These days the most shocking aspect of it is that the seven-year-old me crossed town on my own, to get to the woods. We all did.)
OK, so Mulleskolan taught me about nature. But I probably knew some birds and flowers before then. Must have got the names from an adult. Maybe mother-of-witch, or the landlord’s children or an aunt? Whatever, I knew them. And when I learned to read and write I could read and write them. I could probably look them up in a junior dictionary.
That’s why I was so struck at the weekend, when reading Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian article about bluebells giving way to broadband in children’s dictionaries. The whole article is interesting, but it deals primarily with regional words for very specific things. But going back to the children who can no longer look up bluebells, I was thinking that you can only look up the spelling of this word, if you know the concept in the first place.
I wonder how much parents teach their children these days? Looking at myself, I’m painfully aware of having done far too little of this kind of thing. Bilingualism didn’t make it any easier, but still. I’d obviously forgotten black birds with orange beaks, and I no longer looked so much at nature in any detail. So, it stands to reason I didn’t teach Offspring a lot. And now, I don’t actually know what they know.
(I do know that age three, Son had very little idea of what a pussy was – as used by the staff at the local hospital when testing his eyesight – because I had always said cat or katt.)
The Great Big Green Book I reviewed yesterday shows us that we need to look after nature, if we want to survive. That means we need to know about the things we encounter, and it will be very hard to talk about keeping alive or saving some species we don’t even have a word or name for. We probably need to be more specific than saying tree or flower.
Who will teach today’s children? Do their parents have the knowledge, or do they leave it to teachers? Do they even know? Maybe they don’t, unless their parents made a point of telling them about nature.
(It was koltrast. Common blackbird. Turdus merula. And I need to point out it was the Swedish I’d forgotten… Which makes sense, because I am no longer surrounded by Swedish speakers, and when I do see people, I tend not to talk about birds so much. Unless needing Mr SF’s help.)
I can do bluebells. I recognise a British one. I also know that the Swedish for bluebell is blåklocka, which I also recognise. Because it is a different flower from the bluebell. It is a harebell. Which, having consulted my dear old friend Wikipedia, seems to be called bluebell in Scotland. I have come full circle. (Engelsk klockhyacint is what Swedes call the bluebell when it is not a blåklocka, or harebell.)
End of lesson.