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Bilingualism in children | Interview to Soile Pietikainen | part 1

I am aware many of my readers are part, like myself, of multilingual families. Or, they are parents who know how a valuable asset a language can be and wonder if they should introduce one in their family. Again, adoptive parents who are considering cultivating their child’s birth language. I am excited to share this post with all of them.
I came across a quite unique language researcher. A sociologist at heart, Soile grew passionate about the topic of bilingualism in families years ago. What makes a family successful in bilingualism? Are language, child development, and family affection connected?
Her passion is contagious and her energy endless. In our chat, we spanned from history to daily language issues, adoption and family life. In two interviews, Soile covers all the questions I ever had about parenting a bilingual child.

Paola: Maybe you could start from introducing yourself.


Soile: My name is Soile Pietikainen, I’m a sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction. I’ve been working at this for about 23 years altogether. When I came to London for the first time in 1992, I worked as an au pair for a family where there was a British dad and a Finnish mom. They had children aged 6 and 8. Their mother had always been at home as a housewife. They needed an au pair, because she had gotten a job. She had always spoken only Finnish to her children, she’d been very consistent with it, but her children didn’t speak any Finnish at all. Literally.

P: Really?

S: Yes, that’s very common. But back then, I didn’t know that just a small minority of children learns the language only one parent speaks to them. I had grown up in a small town in Finland in Northern Savo and hadn’t met more than 5 foreigners in my entire life at that point. I had read of bilingual people only on a magazine talking about diplomats’ families. The journalist was admiringly talking ‘Oh these children who speak all these languages’, I was quite envious. Then I went to London to this family and I understood there’s something else to this. Lots of families had the same situation regardless of language: there were many foreign parents who had been speaking a language to the children and the children didn’t speak it, and by the time they started primary school almost all of the families had entirely given up. Back then I found it interesting, I was curious, but I didn’t really bother that much until five years later. In ’97 I was studying for sociology major in Torino (Italy) and focusing on sociology of migration. I was one of two foreign students and we were instructed to do our third year dissertation research on the immigrants of our own ethnicity. This left me with more questions than answers.

P: So this all started twenty years ago…

S: Yes, I became aware of this problem in ’92 and I became seriously aware of this in ’97 and that’s when I started properly studying academic research into bilingualism.

P: During my parents’ generation, general public knew that bilingualism was dangerous for the kids, for the child development? They’d say, stick to one language because kids need to know one well. If you mix more than one, kids are confused.  Is this true now? And what did research say at the time?

S: If we look back to the linguistics of early 20th century, studies were generally not empirical in the as we define empirical results today. They were based on data and often on longitudinal family case studies of individual people and lots of it was speculation. So the evidence that was chosen for discussions by early linguists about bilingualism seemed to indicate that children would be confused by two languages. These ideas persist in the public debate and in people’s minds for a very good reason: there are real bilingualism phenomena that at surface level look exactly like confusion, but they are not. I wrote about it recently on LinkedIn with a headline: Bilingual Parenting Q&A – Are children confused by two languages?  

But then we go into politics, I’m a sociologist after all, so everything in society has a power struggle going on. In medieval Europe the international language was Latin and the Catholic church was the linguistic powerbroker before the European nations as we know them were born. For centuries it was known that men of the elite needed multiple languages and they were actively taught multiple languages. Women of the elite were not because one language is quite enough for a woman, she’d become too powerful if she had money, status and languages. That is why it was also better make sure her money was handled by a man. For poor people it was different. If you go back 400 years  Europe was populated of many languages, like Africa or Asia today. There were a huge number of regional languages with names we have never heard of. Trade required speaking the languages of other regions.  


When the concepts of nation state and borders were born, there was a power issue, because the state wanted people to have just one language, the one that the king commanded. And later in order to introduce the factory production model of goods during the industrial revolution, you would have to be able to control workers in one language, hence the entire mass schooling system introduced in late 19th century was geared towards destroying linguistic diversity, on creating one national language so people would have an identity attached to the power of the state  and could work in large mass production workplaces

Now we fast-forward to the 20th century. The push to a monolingual nation state intensified because of the increasing democracy through universal suffrage, first for men, then for women. Suffrage and schooling lead to a widening readership of newspapers. Then along came broadcast media. All these large scale social phenomena reduce linguistic diversity. The same is now happening globally because of the Internet.  In the first half of the 20th century there was a general idea that bilingualism would cause complications to children.

But in 1960s there was a turning point when in Canada, there were some studies that were done with a modern type of empirical research framework. Those studies were suddenly sharing that in fact bilingual children had advantages over monolingual ones. This was big news and marked the start modern bilingualism research.

P: What kind of advantages?

S: I never talk about the advantages of bilingualism, because no one should do bilingual parenting  because of its potential advantages. Bilingualism should be motivated by life and love. Too many times I have helped people who have done damage to their child with an unnecessary bilingualism experiment motivated by seeking the cognitive or linguistic advantages.

If things are not working out, parents, please seek help before problems accumulate. The earlier we can correct unwise parenting choices the better. Correcting the course of action si a sign of courage and integrity. Don’t hesitate to seek competent help.

P: Why should parents introduce kids to more than one language?

S: It’s a different thing to teach children foreign languages and a different thing to parent in our native  language. This is an important distinction. Teaching children foreign languages is not bilingual parenting.

What makes a good reason for a child  to be parented bilingually? It is that your life has more than one language. There is a limited number of social functions that require a person to develop bilingual competence in different languages. These are:

  • Both parents’ native languages for parent-child relationships
  • The language that bring our nuclear family together
  • The language in which the child’s entire schooling will take place
  • The dominant language of the society of long-term residence

We need to be responsible and set priorities in parenting. Especially with 3 or more languages and especially when families move between countries it is crucial that at least one language develops to a native like proficiency level and remains a lifelong cornerstone of our child’s life.

In 1997 I had an encounter in Italy that  marked me. I interviewed a man in his twenties, son of Italian and Finnish parents. He happened to have the exact same language mix as I do: Finnish-Italian-English trilingual with French and Swedish as foreign languages. I switched language three times during the interview to find  language in which he would be at his ease. I realised he wasn’t proficient in any of our three shared main languages. He spoke all of them like a foreigner.


I remember thinking, oh my god, this person is not going to feel at home anywhere. Every person in the entire world is going to treat him as a foreigner. He is never going to be relaxed and be himself in any language. It was utterly heart-breaking and I thought, I cannot allow this to happen to anyone, definitely not to my own children.

P: To summarise, parents should be careful not to introduce too many languages, but focus on cultivating those for which there is value in the life of the child, and especially target one for them to become native speakers in.

S: Yes, absolutely. It is good to aim very high with up to 2-3 languages if they all are genuinely necessary, but one language stills needs to rule supreme. Challenges also vary from family to family. For instance, challenges for an immigrant family permanently living somewhere, are different from those of an expat family moving every few years without integrating into any one society.

In the stable migrant situation, strongest language is the local language and the risk is  minority language loss.

Whereas for globally mobile  families, the main risk linguistically speaking is multiple underdeveloped languages. In such situation it’s much less likely that the family language is lost because that’s the only anchor representing continuity and national identity. However, the family language needs to develop into a fully developed native language with the kind of literacy, intellectual, and artistic development that you’d wish for. This takes far more than speaking the language in everyday life.

The situation where you have two immigrant parents with the same native language, the chances of succeeding with bilingualism are the best.

P: If I think of my own situation, I expect the real challenges to come with school age and with me having to teach my children how to write and read in the minority language. How to tackle those?

S: You are on the ball. You will need to go through a process of learning to read in two languages. One parent needs to take responsibility for the biliteracy learning over about 2-3 years at the beginning of primary school. But that is another long story. Let’s start from the step that comes before.

When we come to the age of about 5 or 6, literacy becomes a huge thing. Now, literacy development doesn’t start with learning to read, but it starts with hearing books and that can start at age two months. Hearing written language read to you is absolutely a cornerstone of bilingual development. If you take a picture book for the age group of 3 to 5, it often has more formal language than many  adult TV programs. It has more advanced vocabulary and grammar sophistication.

Literature is absolutely essential and you can think of it as divided into three types of written texts: proper poetry for children, fact books, and narrative prose. You need to use them every day, we’re looking at multiple readings sessions every day, always ending before the child is  fed up. Never insist on reading when children are not receptive. End with a kiss and a hug and let them hop away happy. They will love to be read to over and over again.

When you come to the age of about six, monolingual children have developed the  foundations of their spoken language in the native language. From age six to age twenty, there is a major language development that happens because of schooling and literacy. That’s where bilingual families often really underestimate the situation. They think that if the child speaks at home, then that’s going to be enough for native language. For that we need all of that intellectual and literacy development that comes from school and we start that with reading to children from very early age and it continues with learning to read and write in two languages.

P: How do you facilitate that?

S: It’s about books. . I got in regular touch with second-hand book stores in Finland and I got quite recent books in Finnish. It was a good deal for me because I got an enormous discount and I was able to diversify on topics. You can think of it as  substituting in your own home the entire society.

For instance, in this reading thing, what really matters is that the time when the children are sitting in your lap becomes the best time of their day. Then the book content becomes interesting.


With my kids, the big jump in literature happened with the Harry Potter books. We were reading one chapter per night and alternate with other kinds of books. The Harry Potter books were used like a treat to introduce other books. And of course I totally loved reading them!

We have also been quite active in the Finnish community in London for many, many years. It’s great if you have meaningful human relationships with other people. Again this is an important distinctions: we need to differentiate between weak and strong network ties. Exposure to a community using the minority language has virtually no positive impact on any individual child’s bilingualism. Meaningful deep human relationships with individual people who use the minority language has a big impact.

P: Is it effective to expose children to other languages? For instance, does showing your child cartoons in French contribute to teaching French?

S: Remember that distinction between foreign language teaching and bilingual parenting? This is an example of foreign language teaching. If a child with normal first language development watches videos or goes to a playgroup in a foreign language, that’s absolutely fine. It will not damage them in any way. They will experience what it is like not to understand a language. They will learn some meanings and practice producing new sounds.

It is important to understand that this will not lead to bilingualism. First and foremost because we only learn languages in meaningful two-way conversational interactions. This is well proven: you cannot learn a language from a screen. Good programmes can add a lot of value to a language that is already developing thanks to great conversational interaction and books being read to the child in real life reading sessions.

Will foreign language videos and playgroups benefit children’s foreign language learning in the long term? I don’t know. Recently I was looking for research evidence on this specific point, but could not find any. Colleagues specialised in early Second Language Learning could help. Based on what I know about Bilingual First Language Acquisition I would hazard a guess that the effect would be short lived. Children would forget within a few months after the activity stops.

In addition, there is anecdotal evidence from the bilingual family context that people who had a failed attempt at learning a parent’s native language during childhood, struggle more than adult foreign language learners  if later in adulthood they want to learn it properly. I have no idea if a similar risk might or might not apply to early foreign language learning. However, for such reason, I am not uncritically ecstatic about introducing languages early, without having structures in place to keep an incremental learning process going through childhood. . .

My current research project is about adults who grew up in bilingual families. When the book eventually comes out this experience of forgetting and trying to relearn a family language will be a major theme.

The final part of the interview will be published next week. Stay tuned to find much more about bilingualism and bilingual parenting. To get in touch with Soile, visit her website or like her Facebook page.

Note: Soile’s portraits in this post are artwork of Eva Slusarek

6 thoughts on “Bilingualism in children | Interview to Soile Pietikainen | part 1

  1. Soile knows her stuff. “…no one should do bilingual parenting because of its potential advantages.” Thank you for this interview. Looking forward to part 2.


    1. I agree, the interview was revealing to me. Before it I hadn’t fully understand how important the attachment component of learning another language was. I knew human interaction was key in the process, but I hadn’t considered how much it matters WHO the participants of the interaction are. 🙂
      Part 2 is equally juicy.. If you like the post, don’t hesitate to share!


  2. Absolutely fascinating and resonating to our family situation. I will be sharing what I learned from this with my husband as I think he feels like he has failed in a way, with our daughter not learning Finnish while we lived in Australia.

    Eagerly looking forward to the next instalment!


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