28 October 2006

Alexander Aminoff's linguistic proficiency in childhood
An analysis of claims made by the Swedish social services in connection with the forcible removal of him from his mother

By Marianne Haslev Skånland, Professor

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This analysis was carried out in September 1995, to assist lawyer Siv Westerberg in her work with Alexander Aminoff's case.

Marianne Haslev Skånland is a professor of linguistics at the University of Bergen, Norway.

The article has previously been published in Norwegian
on the RBV Forum and on NKMR's website, and in English also on NKMR.

The Alexander Aminoff case is described in Birgitta Wolf's book about the case,
Fallet Alexander – Ett beslagtaget barn and in Brita Sundberg-Weitman's book Rättsstaten Åter!. The case, including the allegations of abnormal language development and abnormal linguistic proficiency is also described in Lennart Hane (red): Rättvisan och psykologin. References to all there may be found in NKMR's section Books. The books are published only in Swedish. Articles in English: The Alexander Aminoff Case by Sven Hessle and Child prisons? In Sweden? by Siv Westerberg. An English translation of Brita Sundberg-Weitman's preface to Wolf's book has been published as The Alexander Case - A Confiscated Child.

Mrs Eva Aminoff's case against Sweden on behalf of her son and herself has been admitted to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Based on the Commission's report, Mrs Aminoff was granted compensation from the Swedish state:
Aminoff v. Sweden. Friendly settlement. Commission Report.

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According to an account of the actions taken by the Swedish social services against Alexander Aminoff, two points regarding his use of language have formed part of the criticism of him and his home made by the social services. In the following I shall comment on each of these.


A medical doctor and a psychologist are quoted as having stated that Alexander Aminoff was uncertain of his own name and therefore had a deficient understanding of his own identity.

This conclusion seems to be based on the fact that Alexander called himself variously "Alexander", "Iskander" and "Nenne".

The name Alexander is of Greek origin but has been reinterpreted in Arabic as a combination of
Al (definite article) and Iksander/Iskander. The latter form has become widespread especially in the south-eastern part of Europe and the Middle East. The form Alexander is also in use, however, and in the languages of the area the two forms are generally recognised as equivalent but with geographic differences of usage. Alexander and Iskander must therefore be considered as regularly established variant forms of the same name (in a manner partly analogous to the way Amadeus and Theofilius have been used as equivalent names internationally in Europe). The custom or habit of using different names in different circumstances is, furthermore, quite common in several cultures, including within European naming traditions.

If Alexander Aminoff as a child alternated between calling himself "Alexander" and "Iskander", this is therefore not attributable to his having a deficient sense of his own identity. Rather, such an interpretation is an indication that the doctor's/psychologist's background of general cultural orientation was weak and, furthermore, reveals that he has not managed to compensate this limitation of his by seeking information and checking it - an essential procedure when results are desired which are sufficiently clear and reliable to be considered scientific.

As regards
AlexanderIskander, such information is readily available. Very likely Alexander's mother, Mrs. Eva Aminoff, would have been able to supply the explanation, had she been asked, since the variant usage is culturally codified and the child Alexander must therefore have learnt it through his home environment.

Or one might consult standard reference works. Maps with international name-forms would e.g. show that Alexandrette in Turkey is often given as
Iskenderun, and that two name-forms are usual for Alexandria in Egypt: Alexandria and Al/El Iskandariya. Many encyclopaedias give corresponding information, for instance the 1990 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, Aschehougs Verdensatlas (1970) and Damms Internasjonalt Atlas (1990) (the latter two are Norwegian atlases).

If young Alexander's alternating use of
Alexander and Iskander were to be taken as any kind of indication of his cognitive development and personality, it would have to be that he was at an early age already fully capable of understanding that linguistic expressions refer to cultural features and situations which are partially equivalent. These are aspects of language which most normal children learn to master in their use of language, with no special instruction. Alexander's ability to handle variant forms is an indication that his intelligence and maturity were both normal.

The idea that a child's report of having what is obviously a nickname –
Nenne – should be a sign of abnormality, can hardly be in need of any comment; its patent unreasonableness is enough to discredit it. I do not know of any statistical studies of the prevalence of nicknames but it is certain that millions of people use them, and they are probably known in every society. Very many people of course also continue to use their nicknames in some contexts in adult age.


Social workers criticised the fact that Alexander Aminoff and his mother spoke English to each other. The social services believed this to hinder young Alexander's acquiring proficiency in Swedish and thus to be detrimental to him, possibly lead to a total lack of language, a phenomenon which the social workers claimed is found among Finnish immigrant children in Sweden.

Particularly in the 1970s, linguistic studies by some Swedish and Finnish scholars appeared, claiming that growing up bilingually, e.g. for Finnish children in Sweden, did not lead to bilingualism but rather to "double semi-lingualism" – i.e. to the children becoming fluent in neither language.

Some of these articles did not express pessimism regarding the children's proficiency in Swedish as much as worry about the most important of all to the children: that their contact with their Finnish-speaking parents might suffer. The argumentation pertaining to this can therefore not necessarily be used in the manner which the social services seem to have done in their case against the Aminoffs, in which consideration for the home environment has not been in their thoughts.

More important, however, is the fact that the above-mentioned research has been subject to considerable criticism internationally, especially from sociolinguists. The claims relating to "double semi-lingualism" simply do not agree with the comprehensive information we have about bilingualism and multi-lingualism from a large number of societies around the world. Several hundred millions of people, perhaps into the billions, grow up more or less multi-lingually. They function normally and draw great benefit from their several languages in a variety of circumstances. There is no evidence indicating that their multi-lingualism has negative effects.

It is correct that a multi-lingual child does not necessarily acquire every part of all his languages at the same speed. This especially affects vocabulary and modes of formulation: if a pupil at a Swedish school learns turns of phrase and concepts pertaining to special subjects, like "molecule", "metabolism", "cosine" or "parliamentary immunity", while the conversation in Finnish at home does not comprise such formalised topics, then the young bilingual will have a more limited ability to talk about such matters in Finnish without training in a scholarly milieu. (Such limitations of course apply to mono-lingual individuals as well.) Similarly, the child growing up may lack Swedish terms for concepts which are only discussed in his Finnish-speaking home. But the precise way in which child language develops into adult language and the tempo with which it develops vary considerably from individual to individual in any case. If several languages are all to a certain extent used through a child's years of growing up, such differences will normally disappear and the young adult will have full mother tongue proficiency in several languages.

The beliefs of the social services relating to the acquisition of language appear to be yet an example of a well-known phenomenon: proposals put forward as hypotheses and discussed within the framework of a scholarly debate, in which the positions taken may be pointed and exaggerated by scholars whose views tend in certain directions, are taken by people outside of the scholarly milieu as proven or provable hard facts, are strongly over-dramatised and are treated as means to particular ends without qualification.

The acquiring of several languages does not take the form of a competitive war for storage space in the brain or for maximum practice time per day or week. Language learning to a considerable extent does not consist of acquiring as many words as possible but of developing and employing strategies for the learning of systems. The potential to acquire be it one or several languages as a mother tongue is:

genetically based;

independent of intelligence within very wide limits;

dependent for its realisation on being put to practice during a certain period of maturation (before 12-14 years of age), in the same way as are many other skills in living beings;

dependent on the child spending some of its time - but not necessarily incessantly or for very many hours at a time - together with others who speak the language/languages in question;

completely independent of formal training or pedagogical instruction. The belief sometimes found among teachers or social workers that children learn language by being consciously taught the use of language and the development of concepts in kindergarten and school, is therefore a misunderstanding.