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Why I want to help children speak their parent's language?

Bilingual family specialist Soile Pietikainen and the toy dog at bookshop
Soile at the European Bookshop in London 2018

I grew up in Finland as monolingually as anybody could. When I was a young woman in 1992 something happened that would mark my life for ever:

I took up a job in London where my task was to speak Finnish to bilingual primary school children who "understood Finnish perfectly", but did not speak any Finnish at all. The hope was that by having a Finnish au pair, they might start speaking Finnish.

I had never even met a bilingual child before. They did not start speaking Finnish. They did not start to speak Finnish even if I spoke Finnish to them always - literally always - consistently and dilgently. 

Was it really that surprising?  They had not started to speak Finnish when their mother had spoken it to them very consistently through out their lives. Why would I, the inexperienced stranger, be any more successful?

And that was not all. Soon I found out that the same thing was going on at the German neighbour's house, and at the Turkish house where my friend was au pairing, and at the Finnish families that came to the Chrismas bazaar at the Finnish church.

Bilingual families of all origins seemed to be struggling with this same thing:

The children did not want to speak their parent's language or the children were not able to speak their parent's language.

Adults tried to make sense of it, but all the explanations I heard sounded unconvincing to me. I did not understand how or why this was happening, but clearly this was something important and widespread. 

A few years later things got serious.

It was 1997. By then it was obvious that I would definitely end up marrying a foreigner and becoming a mother of a bilingual family. The whole thing was feeling more than a theoretical dilemma now.

Good job then that I was working on my Sociology of Migration BA dissertation at the Turin University in Italy. This was my very first piece of field research. I was visiting Finns living in Turin to interview them about their migration stories. 

But I kept on being more interested in their children. This is why. 

In all the 16 families the Finnish mums spoke Finnish to the children. In all the families the Italian dads were very supportive of their wives speaking Finnish and proud of their bilingual children. But only 1/4 families had children who spoke any Finnish at all. Those who did speak Finnish usually spoke it with a conscious effort, not necessarily that fluently. The children were clearly far more at ease in italian. Only in one family the mum described her eldest having a very good Finnish language proficiency. I did not meet her children as they were adults. The said firstborn worked as a translator for the EU. 

For me this was a big wake up call: if I did not get a grip on this, my own children would very likely not learn Finnish. I was not prepared to put up with that! 

I had to understand: 

  • Why children do not start speaking their parent's language?
  • Why children may stop speaking their parent's language?
  • How to prevent the problem from happening? and
  • How to resolve it, if it has already happened?

That has been my life's mission for over 20 years. I have found the answers years ago. I am now a parent of two trilingual teenagers. 

In 2015 I quit academic research and teaching to found Bilingual Potential, so that I could help children to enjoy their parent's languages. 

I suppose I have been a bit too shy to write about my work. I have been here, quietly in the corner for years, helping families to enable their children to speak two languages. 

 

I am delighted that we now have the Bilingual Fluency online courseYou can read about it here and below you can subscribe to receive more information about the course.