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Bilingual family specialist Soile Pietikainen

Soile Pietikäinen

Soile is a sociologist of family and migration. Her title is Dottore in scienze politiche, because her route to studying bilingual families was rather unusual. She came to bilingualism through political science.

While studying politics at Turin Univerity in Italy in the 1990s Soile decided to specialise in development studies and cultural anthropology. As part of that in 1997 she was studying a course in sociology of migration. While doing research fieldwork for the course she kept on meeting families where children had not learned their immigrant parent's language although all the immigrants had initially spoken their native language to the children. Only 1/4 of the 16 families she interviewed had managed to raise children with any level of ability to speak the immigrant parent's language.

What was going on? She just had to find out. For that she needed to also study sociology of family, sociology of knowledge, interaction sociology, socio-linguistics and social psychology. That was a bit of a change of programme, but you've got to what you've got to do.

Soile's research topic became conversational interaction between parents and children in bilingual families. In plain English that means that she listens to and records parents and children having natural conversations. By analysing this kind of data she wanted to find out what is it about parental talk that helps or hinders children's bilingual development.

Did she find out? Oh yes.

Back in 2011 (13 years after she began studying the problem) Soile made a breakthrough in understanding why some families seem to raise bilingual children easily, while other families struggle and abandon bilingual parenting.  

At the first sight bilingual families might appear very similar. For example parents in both families might say that each parent always speaks their own language to the children.

Why does it seem to work in one case, but not in 10 other cases?

Discovering the answer to this question was the turning point. Soile then started to test how her discoveries could be used to help families turn around difficult situations in bilingual family life. In particular Soile focused on what seemed to be the single most pressing issue for bilingual families:

Children are not responding in the parent's language.

Soile began working directly with families to help them activate children's speech in minority languages. She created and ran community projects among the Finnish community in London to develop better ways to help children and better ways to teach parents new bilingual parenting skills.

By trial and error she kept improving her methodology until results were coming thick and fast. Those discoveries are what Bilingual Potential was founded on in 2015.

Bilingual Potential is about not accepting that the world has to be as it is, when we can make things better.

A completely monolingual childhood

Soile is now a trilingual adult, but her childhood could not have been more monolingual. She grew up in a very small town in Finland where almost everyone was a monolingual Finn back then. Like everyone else she studied English and Swedish at school. She even studied French for a few years. This did not mean that she would have been able to say anything in any of these languages in a real social situation. 

Moving to the UK at the age of 20 gave her the opportunity to start speaking English after having studied it at shool for many long years. A few years later she moved to Italy, although she knew no Italian at all. At the beginning it was very hard. Another 5 years of full-on language learning and academic study made her trilingual in Italian. She still cannot speak any Swedish or French, although she can read French with great effort. Ah well, there is always the next goal.

Soile has lived in London for 20 years with her Italian husband and their children, who are now trilingual teenagers. She spent the first 13 years doing research and teaching in three different universities in London. Then she ventured out of the ivory tower and became the full-time practical idealist with a mission to use knowledge to help as many people as possible. 

 

Sociology of family

Before bilingualism became her main focus Soile used to do other things, including research in sociology of family and education at the Institute of Education, now part of UCL. A research project on bilingual childcare that Soile has done recently builds on the work on mother's paid work and childcare choices at the Institute of Education with Professor Stephen Ball and Prof Carol VincentHere are some publicatiosn from that earlier work:

Middle Class Fractions, Childcare and the "Relational" and "Normative" Aspects of Class Practices, published in the Sociological Review. 

Metropolitan Mothers: Mothers, Mothering and Paid Work, published in the Women's Studies International. Full text available here free of charge. 

 

Vulnerable children

Also at the Institute of Education Soile worked across an academic discipline boundary with a team of psychologists for a randomised controlled trial on how to help adoptive parents cope with adoption of seriously traumatised children. The study was a collaboration between Dr Alan Rushton OBE, a specialist in adoption of vulnerable children, and Dr Elizabeth Monck known for her extensive work on sexually abused children and on depression in teenage girls. 

 

Families in Global Transition

Soile is one of the three co-chairs of the UK Affiliate of Families in Global Transition (FIGT). You can read more about the the FIGT UK in this news item: Families in Global Transition now active in the UK.

 

Perhe maailmalla -project with the Finnish Life Long Learning Foundation

One of Soile's all time favourite project partners must be the Finnish Life Long Learning Foundation and their global distance school Kulkuri Currently Soile is the expert panel member for bilingualism for the Family Abroad -project. The project blog Home elsewhere can be found here Koti toisaalla. This is a 3-year project to develop support in Finnish language for Finnish families living temporarily abroad. It is funded by STEA, a funding body for social and healthcare organisations in Finland.