Should parents of bilingual children not speak the majority language at all?

 

Question

Hello!

We are Americans living in Kuopio, Finland (for over 10 years). We have a daughter who is almost 19 months and goes to Finnish päiväkoti (=kindergarten). I was told by the neuvola doctor (paediatrician) to not mix languages and only speak English. We are not fluent (sadly!) anyway, but I am confused why we can’t encourage her speaking the majority languge, Finnish, at home.

We understand a lot and I want her to feel comfortable communicating any way she needs to get her point across. This is a key time because she is developing her language skills. So, for example, she’ll yell “Lippu!” and I say “Hyvä! (=great) Lippu! ‘Flag’ in English and ‘lippu’ in Finnish.” And I always say: “We speak two languages here, Finnish and English, suomea ja englantia”. Is this making sense? I want to encourage her to speak her Finnish, but I want her to know what those words are in English. And she can say them in either.

We’re not speaking a lot of Finnish to her, but we use words like “maito”, “sukka”, “kakka”, “lisää kiitos” (milk, sock, poo, more please) etc. The difference between the posts that I have read here and our situation is that we WANT her to speak Finnish and English at home! It will help us learn too! She’ll be teaching us spoken Finnish and we can teach her English. Is this a bad plan?

We read English story books and Finnish picture books (non-story, just labels of animals, objects, etc.) It has been so helpful for us. We need to understand what she is saying which she learned at kindergarten so we can tell her what it is in English. I guess we see this as an opportunity to become fluent ourselves. If we refuse her speaking Finnish at home, we will have a lot of frustration on both sides. We keep it all a fun learning experience and repeat the words in English. I’m totally not worried about her mixing languages.

We have an appointment with the doctor soon, so I was googling about bilingual homes and came across your site and then saw that you speak FINNISH! But, are you Finnish/German? Have you lived here? What is your opinion about our situation?

Sara

Answer

Dear Sara

Thank you so much for your question! It is always exciting to hear from my native Finland, where I lived and raised my daughters until we moved to the UK two decades ago. My name may sound German, but it stems from my Finland-Swedish background.

In a way, I am pleased that your paediatrician is encouraging you to use English at home. English is the minority language in your scenario. Your daughter needs consistent exposure to it, so that she can learn, develop and maintain her English-skills. The reason I am pleased is because I still get many messages from parents who have been discouraged from using their family language and to switch to the majority language so that “their child can learn it quicker” (an incorrect piece of advice).

Hopefully the tide is turning, and we will soon be in a place where all paediatricians, speech and language therapists and any other professionals working with children recognize the value of the home language and bilingualism. However, we do not want a swing too far to the other side, either. There is no need to forbid parents from speaking anything else than the family language at home. Children do not get confused by the use of more than one language by a parent.

Reading your message, I understand that your main language at home is English, i.e. you family language strategy is minority language at home (mL@H). You also actively point out the two languages, Finnish and English, for any words you say in both. You read story books in English and some “point and name” books in Finnish, the majority language. This is all fine, you will not confuse your daughter. With her attending a Finnish kindergarten, and I presume later a Finnish-speaking school, she will no doubt become a fluent Finnish-speaker. She will not pick up any possible mistakes you make, nor the accent.

You will learn some Finnish from your daughter, but I would also encourage you to find other ways of improving your own Finnish-skills – take alook at this site, for example. Having experienced my daughters’ father learn Finnish within a couple of years as an adult, I can warmly recommend what he did: Use the little Finnish you know at every opportunity. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes – Finns love it when you make an effort to learn their language. Unfortunately for you, most Finns are fluent English-speakers, so may want to switch languages when you speak with them. Ask them to bear with you and help you with finding the right words and forming sentences.

The paediatrician means well, and no doubt has your daughter’s best interest in mind – leave it at that. If he repeats his advice to not speak ANY Finnish at home, smile, move on and continue what you are doing. The thing you need to be aware of is that if your daughter at some point starts to show signs of a strong preference for Finnish when speaking with you, then it is important for you and your husband to focus on English and increase the exposure to it. It can be difficult to turn around a situation when a child decides to speak only the majority language, so prevention is better than “cure” also in this case.

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards,
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

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