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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 study also 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 later) Soile made a breakthrough in understanding why some families seem to raise bilingual children as if there were no problem with it at all, while other families struggle and abandon bilingual parenting - even though at the first sight the families were doing excatly the same thing.

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: children 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 for several years 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 built on shameless dreaming. It 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 transform the latent learning from Finnish schools into spoken English for pratical living. 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. You know, 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 in the UK in universities. Certain habits die hard. Then she ventured out of the ivory tower and became the full-time idealist that you can see now.