3 questions from Saturday school parents

Lontoon suomalainen lauantaikoulu - Finnish Saturday school in London
Lontoon suomalainen lauantaikoulu - Finnish Saturday school in London

On Saturday 14th March, a week before the corona virus social distancing began in London, I had the pleasure to visit Lontoon suomikoulu - the Finnish Saturday School in London where I did my research on parent-child interaction in bilingual families. I spent two hours with the current parents to answer their questions about bilingualism. Then I observed the current children going about their free play after the Saturday school lessons. Thank you for having me. Here are the answers to your questions. 

First, whenever I meet parents, I always learn something new. This time I am particularly thankful for having witnessed a 5-second piece of prime crowd control in action, when a police trained parent resolved a classic hyped running-around situation. Respect! That was impressive. Thank you police mum. The educational possibilities of your skills are endless. They could improve emotional and physical safety in schools. What I observed was: 

  • fast reaction time, 
  • simple statement of facts in 3 words appealing to be considerate to others,
  • simple 3-word call to action, 
  • an effortlessly powerful voice and a non-judgemental tone. 

Authority without a hint of authoritarianism. Every single child followed the instructions immediately without any sign of resentment. I saw police work in a new light. This is what policing by consent means. The penny dropped. 

Back to bilingualism. Ten years after the research all the children I worked with at the Saturday school have grown up and their familes have moved on. The new families have all the same experiences, feelings, joys and sorrows. The new children are exactly like the ones I studied ten years ago. Bilingual families share life experiences across time and place. 

Parents had sent three question in advance:

1. My 6-year-old child used to speak Finnish but is now responding to me in English after I returned to full time work. What could I do to activate the Finnish language again?

2. My children just won't speak Finnish. Especially my younger child, who is now 5, has never spoken Finnish. I speak Finnish to my children while both of them speak English fluently to me. How could I improve this situation?

3. The same methods that worked to teach Finnish to one child don't seem to work with the other. Is this something to do with children's personalities? 

Fantastic questions and so relevant to hundreds of thousands of bilingual parents. 

There is always so much to talk about and every question would merit an hour of proper investigation. I always feel after these encounters with parents that so much more needed to be said - so much more sharing of experiences, so much more knowledge, so much more support. I felt that I had not given clear enough answers to the original questions as live conversations develop to include tens of new questions. 

For this reason I have written concise actionable answers especially for you, the parents of the Finnish Saturday School in London. I wrote the article in English so that it can be shared with your partners and friends who are not Finnish speakers.

Right at the end I also give you some bonus content. The parents at Lontoon suomikoulu did a partiularly brilliant piece of collective thinking and it will be forgotten unless we write it down. You will find it as the bonus question: Why is it so hard to speak my language to my child? 


1. My 6-year-old child used to speak Finnish but is now responding to me in English after I returned to full time work. What could I do to activate the Finnish language again?

Well done! Only recently your 6-year-old spoke Finnish to you. That is a major achievement that many bilingual families dream of. You are in a really good place. If your child stopped speaking Finnish less than about 3-4 months ago then this problem can be resolved in about a month by using the 20x20 seconds method of Bilingual Speech Activation. 

It doesn't even take much work, because you child's spoken Finnish is just below the surface and will activate almost instantly. Once you have learned the skills to do this, you can use the same skills over and over again for the rest of your life together. Welcome to the new world of easier bilingual parenting.  

As the very first thing, read this article I wrote for the Europe Street News: How to manage a bilingual home: understanding children's response. You can observe this in your interactions with your child today and start consciously making more effective choices immediately. Even just this one tiny thing will start to make a visible difference within a week. Just don't over-do it. That would be annoying to your child. You can keep track of the change by taking daily notes. 

Your problem could be properly resolved with the Bilingual Cake - short, sweet and to the point. The chapter on "Baking Powder" of the Bilingual Cake model would probably be enough for you to resolve a problem as easy as this one. I have had parents with 5-6-year olds in identical situations reporting back to me within a week or two from a Bilingual Cake talk that their child now speaks the parent's language with ease. 

Would it be helpful if I organised a Bilingual Cake course as a series of live webinars during the coronavirus quarantene? 

Or this problem could be resolved in a robust way by studying the new Bilingual Fluency online course when it comes out this spring. Then you would have a solid background knowledge to deal with any situation, including how to resolve more difficult problems that may occur in younger siblings. 

You could resolve this fastest by doing a Bilingual Family Consultancy that would focus strictly on your and your child's individual needs. 

The realistic timeline for activating speech in the child's weaker language in this type of situation would be:

  • speaking the language within one month,
  • new habits established in three months,
  • having long relaxed conversations in the newly activated language within 6 months. 


2. My children just won't speak Finnish. Especially my younger child, who is now 5, has never spoken Finnish. I speak Finnish to my children while both of them speak English fluently to me. How could I improve this situation?

You know what. Many parents feel exasperated by this situation. Many parents feel ashamed to admit this. Many parents feel like they have personally failed at something important in their parenting. 

Let me tell you one thing: you are the majority. You are the norm. Especially among the so-called OPOL (One Parent - One Language) families. Thank you for speaking out, because people need help, not sugar coated fantasies of the bliss of bilingual parenting.

This is the reason why a very large and unknown number of bilingual families abandon bilingual parenting early on. You are still going on. That shows commitment and tenacity. You can turn this around, regardless of the scary thing I am about to say. 

What is happening in your family is the result of a natural social process that is powerful, overwhelming and out of your control. This is not a sign of inadequacy in the parent. There is no reason for guilt and stigma. I hope that helps a little, even if it does not lessen the pain. 

In the Finnish baby magazine KAKSPLUS there is this beautiful article written by a Finnish mother in Denmark who writes under the pen name Jyllannin suomineito. She describes a situation very similar to yours and the emotional impact it has on the mother. This article is in Finnish. Highly recommended for Finnish speakers: Lapseni ei puhu enää yhtään suomea - Ulkomailla asumisen kipeä hinta? ("My child does not speak any Finnish anymore - The painful price of living abroad?")

So how do we resolve this problem?

We resolve it by reducing input and exposure to the Finnish language. Yes, that's right - reducing - not increasing. Shall we go a bit deeper into this novel idea? 

At the Saturday school I told a story of a client of mine whose 4-year-old daughter had stopped speaking French two years earlier.

When the mother contacted me her child was not speaking any French even though the mother had continued to speak French to the child. Following the standard advice to increase input and exposure to the minority language the family had employed a French au pair. The child reacted badly. She rejected the au pair and was angry with her mother.

This is an entirely normal reaction from the child. Suddenly in her home there is a stranger who speaks to her in a language she does not understand, not as much as her mother thinks she does. That stranger is robbing the family home of privacy. The stranger is speaking in French with her mother, excluding the child from what is going on between the two women and reducing the time her mother has for her.

The child of course understood that this new arrangement was her mother's doing and that the purpose was to pressurise her to speak this uncomfortable language. But she could not.

How would you feel in the child's shoes? Inadequate? Wronged? Humiliated? 

Countless bilingual children have experienced this when their parents try to do the best for their children by adding input and exposure to the fading minority language. Sometimes the standard bilingual parenting advice can be shokingly inconsiderate of the children's feelings. 

How do we get out of the deadlock? 

We get out of the deadlock by turning the tables: we make the child feel good. We do that by giving the child the voice and the emotional respect that they need in the family. 

The very first thing we did with this family was that the French au pair started to speak to the child in her very broken English. The objective was to redress the newly occurred power-inbalance in the family. It was crucial to make it clear to the child that its OK to struggle with a language. French is hard for the child, but English is hard for the au pair. Now they can help each other.

In the child's own home her stronger language is a valid means of communication with everybody. The French language is not a means to boss her about. We radically reduced the input and exposure to French. I gave very precise instructions for when not to use French - as well as instructions for how and when the small amount of French should occur.

In one week the child relaxed. She was not angry with her mum anymore. She was developing a positive relationship with the au pair. Now we were ready to begin Bilingual Speech Activation for her in French. This French mother described  the experience beautifully:

"My child was drowning in a sea of French. Now she can safely paddle through a little stream of French."

At the Finnish Saturday School in London we talked about how to start doing this in the simplest possible sense that anyone could do.

If your child currently does not speak your language, create one-minute-long special moments when you focus on speaking Finnish together. In these special moments your attention is 100% focussed on listening to your child. Together you explore for one minute what your child can say in Finnish. Then you practice using those tiny fragments of language - it does not matter what they might be.

Then you stop. You stop before your child becomes tired or irritated. You give them praise. You give them a smile, a kiss and a cuddle. You send them hopping along to whatever they want to be doing or you continue intimacy with them in the language in which they are comfortable.

Whenever you have these special moments they must end with a feeling of happiness. Then your child will want to come back to you to get more of these short special moments in your language.

Start by creating a habit of a one special minute of Finnish every day. It builds up from there. We all want to speak a language in which we are loved.

If you wanted to drastically improve things, then there would be options to do so. The time scale would be longer and the effort required would be greater than in the question 1 above. However, it is doable.

The Bilingual Cake would help you understand why this has happened to your family. It would give you plenty of new knowldge to understand your family and your child's bilingualism. It would also reduce the sense of helplessness parents tend to feel in these situations. However, it would not be enough to activate your children's Finnish language. More is needed.

I created the Bilingual Fluency online course to resolve this problen in children aged 2-4. Bilingual Fluency can be used for children aged 5-8 with an adaptation that takes into account the age of the children.

However, your situation is of a challenging kind and extended personal support for the parent would be a very good idea. That could be done in addition to Bilingual Fluency or separately from it. 

If your wanted to do a Bilingual Family Consultancy I would begin with an assessment for both children. Based on real data on their latent Finnish language I would create a personalised programme, teach it to you and support you through carrying it out.

This type of Bilingual Speech Activation intervention is a 6-month commitment. With most families with similar situations we would first meet weekly, then monthly and then with a 3 month interval. However, some other families prefer regular monthly appointments. 

The realistic time it takes to activate conversational speaking in a receptive weaker language:

  • Within one month we can establish short conversations during the special moments.
  • In three months we can extend those conversations.
  • In six months it becomes a normal part of life to have prolonged special times in the parent's language. 

The important thing to understand - contrary to the consensus view - is that outside of the special times you do not need to insist that your child should speak Finnish. Also you do not always need to speak Finnish to your child. There are specific times and places when you should not speak your native language to your child because of the context or because it is not functional for life. The question 3 and the bonus question give a glimpse of why. 


3. The same methods that worked to teach Finnish to one child seem not to work with the other. Is this something to do with children's personalities? 

This is another common question. Naturally children have different personalities and react to similar things in different ways. However, the reason for the difference between siblings' bilingualism is likely to be a different one. 

At the Saturday school I asked the parents which child was not learning to speak Finnish even if the parent was using the same methods?

In every family the child who was having harder time with Finnish was the younger sibling. This is a well-known pattern in bilingual families. Younger children have a far lower chance of becoming bilingual than the first-born sibling. 

Why? This is to do with the fact that each sibling is born to a different family. We'll outline it here breefly and without the illustrations that you would have in Bilingual Cake. 

When the first born child is born, in the family there are only the parents. First born children get far more one-to-one interaction with adults than any younger siblings. By the time the second child is born, the pre-existing family they enter has changed into a social group of three.

The second baby has much less one-on-one time with each parent, because often the parent interacts with both children at the same time. The older child is more vocal and gets heard more. The second born is often spoken over and will need to seek attention to be heard. It is not easy, when your sibling is more developed and reacts faster with their more advanced skills. 

In addition to that the younger child has something the older child never had at their age: a sibling relationship. Much of the daily communication a child will have is with the sibling. Interaction between children is very different from adult-child interaction. The human relationship between siblings is also very different from a parent-child relationship. 

For these reasons the opportunities for the younger child to learn and use the foreign parent's language are far more limited than their older sibling had.

First, they have far less opportunities to be at the centre of an adult's undivided attention. Second, they have different mix of the types of interaction situations they experience within family relationships.

In a Bilingual Family Consultancy we would often do this analysis with drawings on paper in the very first appointment. Both Bilingual Cake and the Bilingual Fluency online course also guide you through analysing this aspect of your family. 

What you can do from today is to pay attention to a few things that help your second or third child to practise speaking your language:

  • Make it a priority to have a special one-to-one time with the younger child where they are fully listened to. 
  • When both children are part of the same conversation, pay attention to both or all children getting roughly equal amounts of airtime. 

There is no reason why you cannot raise both children or more than 2 children with really strong bilingualism. Younger children can become bilingual.

The younger child's strong bilingualism can also protect their older sibling from language loss during primary school years. But that is another long story. 

In my own family we faced the risk of our younger child losing her Finnish language at the age of three. The very first Bilingual Speech Activation I did was when I brought my daughter's Finnish back from the brink. If you click here you'll find a video where I talk about what happened back then.

Bilingual Speech Activation works just as well with younger siblings. It was originally developed for the younger sibling in my trilingual family. 


Bonus question: Why is it so hard to speak my native language to my child? 

This is one of those classic questions that one cannot escape. If on one hand we know for sure that being bilingual is a normal and natural thing for human beings, then why is it so darn hard to speak my native native to my bilingual child? We are talking about the adult's native language. We are talking about the adult struggling to speak their strongest language to their child. It does not make sense.

This phenomenon fascinated me at the beginning of my research with the families of the Finnish Saturday School in London 10 years ago. Parents kept talking about how hard it was to speak Finnish to their children. They described it as a struggle. They described it as tiring and as a burden. 

I asked the current parents of Lontoon suomikoulu what they think the reasons might be and they came up very fast with all the three reasons. That was brilliant. 

In a nutshell, here is why it feels hard to speak your native language to your child:

  • If the parent has been speaking English to everyone else, it does not come naturally to suddenly switch to Finnish to speak to one person. It requires conscious effort. I explained how this relates to Francois Grosjean's concept of language modes. The parent who is in monolingual mode in English will find it hard to switch to speak to the child in Finnish in the middle of a fast moving social situation. It does indeed require a conscious thought and effort.
  • The parent's own language is eroding. The parent cannot even remember how to say it in their native language. In fact, adult migrants experience significant native language attrition while living abroad for long periods of time. Monica Schmid is a Professor of Linguistics at University of Essex. She is one of my top 10 favourite bilingualism academics. She writes great easy-to-read articles for the Conversation. This one is particularly relevant to us here: Expats beware: Losing confidence in your mother tongue could cost you a job. If this happens to a professor who specialises in language attrition... 
  • The child does not understand what we are saying. Or we do not know whether the child understood or not. Or we do not know which part of what we said the child understood. Or we do not know whether the child thinks they understood, but actually they misunderstood! This is what I discovered in my research with the families of the Finnish community in London.

No wonder it feels hard to speak Finnish to our children! Just imagine what it feels like to the children.. 

But there are some rare bilingual and trilingual families where the parent does not experience any such struggle in speaking their native language to their children. Luckily, my experience has been like that.

We also talked about how that hapier reality can happen. We draw a visual aid to understand when things become easy and how it's possible to get there. That is what I mean when I say that bilingual parenting can be so much easier.

If I went into that now, we would be here all night. But it's all in the Week 4 of the Bilingual Fluency online course


Thank you for your time and for your delightful company to all the families of the Finnish Saturday school in London.