I was glad to see that the first part of this interview to Soile Pietikainen quickly collected a record number of visits on my blog. It’s time for part 2: here I explored with Soile what are the language components of a multilingual family, I asked Soile’s expert advice on the opportunity of (re-)teaching my adopted son his birth country’s language, and asked what services her company Bilingual Potential offers to families like mine. Let’s dig right in!
Paola: If you decide to parent in a foreign language, does it have to be your native language?
Soile: There is a very strong consensus among researchers that parents should parent in their native language. When we parent in our native language we are not parenting in a foreign language, no matter where we live. Our native language is not foreign to us. That is what matters in bilingual parenting.
My professional opinion is that it is a very bad idea to attempt parenting in a foreign language, meaning in a non-native language. Usually people attempt parenting in a non-native language because they want their child to gain the cognitive and linguistic advantages of bilingualism. This is extremely unlikely to happen. It is good to remember that it doesn’t necessarily work even for people who attempt to parent in their native language while living abroad.
Furthermore foreign languages learned at a later age are often learned to a far higher standard than languages learned as native bilingual’s weaker languages in early childhood. This is a tabu and many bilingual parents will be angry that I say so. However, anyone of us can verify in our local language minority community by comparing adults’ foreign languages to native bilinguals weaker languages. It becomes pretty soon obvious that the majority of foreign language learners easily beat the majority of native bilinguals.
Keeping it up in a foreign language would be very hard anyway as children grow. For all these reasons, please believe me, it is best to parent in our native language, for reasons of love and life. And when you do, aim really high and put a huge effort into it.
P: Is success of bilingualism mainly about the language I use with my child?
S: Human children require almost twenty years of parental care. Such burden has to be share and that’s why human families are based on the relationship between two mature adults. The language the couple communicates in is the language that is the core of the entire family system.
If the parents love each other in the the language of the place where they live, it’s much harder to raise bilingual children. It is very different from the couple sharing the minority language, like in your family and in mine. In both our families the couple relationship is founded on Italian, while we live in Finland and in the UK respectively. .
Then there’s the whole family language: every family needs a language that brings the whole family together. Families that don’t have that have various emotional difficulties because there’s always one person who is going to be left out from the moments when the family feels togetherness.
Then you have the siblings’ language. Children spend much more time talking and playing with each other than in one-to-one conversations with a parent. Sibling language is almost universally the local language. The language used by siblings can change multiple times in the course of a lifetime. It can change literally within days when there is a shift in one child’s language balance If siblings use the minority language with each other you are doing extremely well. Keep it up.
Finally there is the language of individual parent-child relationships. It occupies a minor part of bilingual family communication time. At the same time that is where we make big progress and resolve problems. In bilingual family consultancy these one-to-one parenting moments are where most of the interventions I design for families take place.
P: Why do siblings switch the language they use together?
S: It’s about what is the easiest language, for that particular combination of people in that particular moment. When two people interact, their language choice depends on several considerations, such as the speaker’s own language skills, the conversation partner’s language skills, situation, social expectations and habit.
The sibling the is private to the children. The only way we parents can influence the language choice it is to support the minority language to develop very, very well for all children in the family
P: Since you are a sociologist, I want to go off script and ask you, what is the relationship between language and culture?
S: That’s a gigantic question, there’s a library about it. I want to tell a personal story from a teacher training situation. I was at a secondary school lecturing on migrant children in the classroom. One of the teachers challenged me saying, “Is it really necessary for these Pakistanis to know Urdu?”. Later in the same lesson we talked about a real case of a British kid who had grown up in Japan. The child was a Japanese native speaker and had poor English language skills, I was asking “Would this British kid be accepted?” and the same teacher said “Of course not, everyone would say he’s a foreigner”. So yes, you cannot understand a culture in any other way but in its own language.
P: I want to jump from here to another topic since many of my readers are parents who have adopted internationally. Even my own son was adopted from India. Is there value in teaching adopted children their birth language to complete their identity?
S: This is a serious one. I would like to note for the record that I am not competent to advice on adoption and adoptive families. I can only offer general reflections based on my understanding of multilingual and multicultural families. I suppose it depends. We would be looking at how old is this child and what is his or her current level in the native language. One should go through proper family consultancy on an individual basis to think it through.
However, there are some studies about Korean children adopted to France. t was found that in the adoption process children lost their native language Korean and they acquired native French, which is not to be taken for granted. They were fully switching to a new native language. Later some of those children in their teens tried to go and learn Korean in a classroom and found absolutely no benefit from the fact that they had been Korean native monolingual as young children.
It’s hard to see how the adoptive family would have the necessary resources and linguistic competence to support a functional bilingual language development in their adoptive child’s birth language. Would it be a benefit or a burden to the child?
From the point of view of any child, it means much more to have one meaningful person in their life speaking a language than being bombarded with a truckload of stimulation. Learning a language is about loving someone. Given that, in the case of an adopted child if there were someone who is genuinely part of the family or a close friend who shares the culture of origin, then it would be fantastic and I think it would be beneficial to have that relationship. Still it would be unlikely to lead to a very high level of bilingualism.
However, it would take huge commitment from the family and from this someone. It would need to be a long-term relationship, someone who really keeps on being meaningful to that child for decades.
P: I would like to ask you about Bilingual Potential. What is it and what services do you provide through it?
S: Bilingual Potential is an ethical business that applies my PhD research for the benefit of bilingual and multilingual people.
In 2009 I won a grant from the Kone foundation and I could study bilingual families full time for four years. What a treat. I wanted to find out why is it that most families struggle while some seem to come miraculous to do extremely well. I followed some ordinary bilingual families with school-aged children longitudinally for 2 years observing them in community settings and visiting them in their homes where we carried out recordings of natural family talk and did some assessment tasks.
That study changed my understanding of bilingualism entirely. I discovered quite a lot about the everyday social processes through which a language is lost or kept going. I thought, this cannot be hidden in an academic publication. I had previously done lots of community projects, I had been working with schools, at that point I started doing it directly with families.
What parents learn about bilingualism can truly affect the outcome. From 2011 I started working as a consultant for families, face to face or via Skype. I developed five different specific leading methodologies tailored for bilingual children, corresponding to five big key problems where bilingual development usually fails.
At some point I decided, that this was going to be my actual job. In summer of 2015 I founded Bilingual Potential as a company. Bilingual Potential is an ethical business dedicated to advancing every child’s right the languages of their parents as defined in the Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I do Bilingual Cake training for parents and teachers. I do private family consultancy, the most of all to activate speech in minority languages that children do not speak. I do consultancy for organisations schools or businesses, or corporate seminars for international companies with a globally mobile or international workforce.
The Bilingual Cake book is coming out in the near future. Throughout the rest of 2018 news about the Bilingual Cake book and information about new services will be appearing on the Bilingual Potential website.
P: Potentially some of my readers may be interested. Can you give some details?
S. I will focus here on family services with private clients. Most bilingual family consultancies happen via Skype. I have clients from different countries in Europe, as well as in USA, Canada, , Australia. Sometimes parents seek advice right at the beginning, with the first baby. These consultancies consist of just one appointment where we talk about starting out as a bilingual family, making considered language choices and setting up routines that stay functional for a long time. If parents want to go into a little more depth we do a training on how to interact with a baby to support language development.
However the most common type of consultancy is a bilingual speech activation. This is my speciality. This is intimately connected to the life changing discoveries from my PhD project. Most of my clients have a child who has never begun to speak one of the family languages, or has stopped speaking it. We bring that language to life.
There are currently two bilingual speech activation packages. One is for toddlers aged 18-30 months focussing on vocabulary development and transition to two-word sentences in both native languages. The other is for children aged 3-5 with a normal healthy language development in their dominant language, who have a fading weaker language or do not currently speak their weaker language. We always aim for turning this stark unbalance into two native like languages.
Speech activation consultancies work like a pulse. We have an initial series of appointments. Then we have a break and many families return for long-term client relationship where periodically we do a new intensive spurt to always keep working to achieve two native languages as children grow and the goalposts keep moving fast forward.
Then there are the multilingual consultancies for families with more than two languages, multiliteracy consultancies for children with two well developed languages at ages 5-7, speech activations at ages 6 and older, and complex cases.
In complex cases children have emotional, social or developmental problems that often require working with other professionals such as Speech and Language Therapist, Paediatrician or a Developmental Psychologist. These cases tend to involve language delay also in the child’s stronger language.
Employers can also buy family consultancy services in bulk for their international staff.
If you feel your bilingual family may need an intervention or you want to lay good grounds for successful bilingual parenting, Soile is the expert you are looking for. I left the interview enlightened, wiser, and fascinated by how wide and colourful her knowledge is. Soile is very active in divulgation and shares plenty of interesting resources on her LinkedIn profile, her Facebook page, and her website. Thank you Soile, for the enriching conversation and for helping my readers in their bilingual family journey.
Note: Soile’s portraits in this post are artwork of Eva Slusarek.