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Elephant Mum Q&A 2020: Bilingual family moving from Finland to Australia

Bilingual family plans a move to Australia
Bilingual family plans a move to Australia

Question: We plan to move our English-Finnish bilingual family from Finland to Australia in 4-5 years time. How should we prepare? 

I am Australian and speak English, only little bit of Finnish. My husband is Finnish and speaks English with me. We live in Finland and plan to move to Australia once our kid/s are a little older. I would think before our child is starting school, around 4-5 years old. I'm still cooking our first born so I am being overly prepared researching this, due in November!

I just really want to safeguard their Finnish when we move. Obviously if we lived here our whole lives, English would be around us all the time, it’s so easy to access content, groups etc. but to access the same in Australia for Finnish will be difficult so I feel like those early years are really important. 

Congratulations on your baby news!

It’s early days, but in bilingual parenting it is actually good to plan about 4-5 years in advance. Your time frame to make informed choices for the move is perfect. Now in the 7 months before the baby is born you have the opportunity to take action to make those choices.

When I had my first baby almost 20 years ago, it was a learning curve so steep that the next time we parents had mental space to think about bilingualism was when it was time to plan for the first birthday. It is ideal to think ahead during the pregnancy.

As we are talking about medium-term strategic planning, I will give you one big thought to think through.

Answer: The best thing you can do to prepare for the move, is for you to learn Finnish really well now.

One of the most powerful things parents can control in a bilingual family is the family language, if they plan far enough in advance. Right now you are in a position to do that if you want to.

Let's first talk about family language and then take a look at what you could do to prepare. 

Families need a language to bond. In bilingual and multilingual families this means that our family wellbeing requires us to have a language that brings us together in shared experiences. In the family language we become who we are as a family; we share stories, laugh together, make decisions and argue.

To be clear, when I say 'family language' I mean the language that is used when everyone is together. It can be different from the language spoken between individual family members. For example, I speak Finnish one-on-one with my children, but Italian with them when we are having a family conversation.

In your case this means that while both of you build the parent-child bond, each in your native language, one of you will use a different language with the child in the context of whole family conversations. 

It also matters enormously what role our family language plays in the society we live in. 

For you as a couple the natural choice for the family language is English, that language in which (I assume) you fell in love. Almost all bilingual families use as the family language the same language in which the parents love each other. 

Depending on where the family lives, a particular family language can be an advantage or a disadvantage.

While you live in Finland it is to your advantage to have English as the family's shared language, because it is the minority language. If you move to Australia and keep speaking English as your family language, it turns into a disadvantage, exactly as you anticipate in your question. 

The good news though, is that this level of forward planning gives you an excellent opportunity to be fully prepared for the upcoming transition.

The big opportunity – Finnish as a family language in Australia

If you learn Finnish now, when you move to Australia, Finnish can become your family language.

It takes an adult about 3-6 months of genuine effort to break through to basic spoken fluency in a new foreign language when living in a country where the target language is spoken. Before your baby is born you have the necessary time to make your breakthrough to become a lower intermediate speaker of Finnish, able to get by in Finnish in everyday situations.

The good news is that adults beat kids as language learners any day.

The very first thing is to buy a really nice new A4 notebook. It will become your best ally, but what to do with it? 

Here are my top tips to kick-start a new language as an adult:

1. Start to speak immediately. Whatever you can say, say it. Require your husband to have proper 2-way conversations with you in Finnish every day. No ifs, no buts, no messing around. You are a woman on a mission. You have a concrete target to keep track of. Think of the conversation as a ball game. Your target is to keep passing the ball as long as possible. How many times can you respond to your husband in Finnish to keep the conversation moving, without having to resort to English? You can even write the daily statistics in your notebook. You will improve your personal best fast. 

2. High frequency words. Learn to recognise, say and write the 1000 most common words of the spoken Finnish language. You will notice that actually you know a large number of these words already. 1000 words is a tiny vocabulary, but it will be enough for your breakthrough. Then keep adding vocabulary that you encounter in real life. 10 words/day is a good routine speed after the first 1000.

3. Template phases. Learn by heart sentences and sentence structures that you notice that you need every day. “I like..”, “I would prefer..”, “I am going to…”, "... starts at ... time", “Shall we try to…”, “Could you…”. Then practise changing the pronoun/the verb/the noun in that one sentence structure. Start with 5 sentences per day, write 5 modified versions for each of the 5 sentences. Perfect the grammar and spelling with your husband. Then read them aloud until your pronunciation becomes easier and you remember them by heart. Keep it up until you can remember and use 100 ready-made sentences. This can be done in less than 3 weeks. I’m serious. The faster you go, the easier it will be. Momentum gives lift. You are water skiing on the surface of the language.

4. Keep reading everything you see and making out what it means. Eavesdrop every conversation and try to make out what is being said (scandalous!).

5. Refuse to let Finns speak English to you unless you are in desperate need.

It will be less than one month into your project of learning to speak Finnish and you will be speeding along. You will begin to understand what is being said around you. You will begin to be able to react with a shorter reaction time. With your husband listening to you patiently you will be having ever longer simple conversations. The elusive door to Finnish life will begin to open in front of you. 

This is not a pipe dream. Back in the day I took my Italian from zero to speaking in 3 months, to intermediate conversation in 6-8 months and to university in 12 months. It was work and it was a mind blowing experience of cultural discovery. It was the best investment I ever made in my future bilingual family. About 5 years later I moved to the UK. Twenty years on I am still able to use Italian as our family language.

The most valuable thing is that this kind of learning does not lead to a superficial learning of a foreign language. It leads to cultural understanding. The only way to understand any culture is to live it in its own language. 

It takes an adult roughly 4-5 years of purposeful work to enjoy using a new language for all purposes in adult life. Just in time for your move to Australia. 

This is a link to my article in the Europe Street News on why adult immigrants are way better language learners than children. It has much to do with love. 

This Irish guy called Benny has got the method covered. As far as I can see his 'Fluent in 3 months' has a pretty solid understanding of how adults can learn to speak a new language fast.

The second-best alternative

If, after the move, you end up having a situation where Finnish comes only from one parent, then the future of your childrens' Finnish in Australia will rely on your husband’s micro-interaction skills. That is what I teach in Bilingual Speech Activation consultancies and in the Bilingual Fluency online course. 

Parental interaction skills are the single biggest reason why some bilingual children thrive with their two languages and others don’t. While you live in Finland your interaction skills are crucial for your child's English development. 

However, this is something you cannot learn yet. You first need a child to speak to for you to practice these skills. I take Bilingual Speech Activation clients when children have at least 18 months. The age limit for the Bilingual Fluency online course is that the child must have at least 24 months for the parent to participate. 

In summary, the best plan for the move to Australia, is for your Finnish to be impressive before then.