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The Setting

Bilingual families from the Tampere region were chosen for this study. The reason for this was the fact that the Estonian language of Estonians living in Tampere had been researched before (see Praakli 2002, 2009; Teiss 2005).

Two children were chosen for the study, along with their families. They were selected from families with two-year-olds who were participating in Tampere’s Estonian Children’s Club. The chosen subjects were bilingual. In this study, bilingualism was defined as having two languages in the family and the parents speaking different mother tongues - Estonian and Finnish - to each other.

Interviews with the Parents

Open-ended questions were used in semi-structured interviews. The following main themes were covered with both parents separately:

  • • language usage between spouses
  • • language usage with the children
  • • language usage at home currently
  • • bilingualism

The questions covered practical language situations and the parents’ thoughts and beliefs about each other’s languages, bilingualism, and the future of the children’s language use. In addition, language usage in a wider context was investigated, i.e. language usage between siblings and other important people in the children’s lives (relatives and friends), and in various language contexts, such as school, public spaces, in Estonia, and in Finland. Also mapped out were the families’ language and cultural backgrounds, as well as the subjects’ language contacts (such as their annual contacts with representatives of the minority language and the surroundings where the language was spoken).

The interviews were conducted by the same interviewer using the parents’ mother tongue (Estonian and Finnish). Since the interviewer was already known to both families at the time of the first data collection phase, and since some of the data had been collected from the families in advance, the interviews did not strictly follow the themes of the inquiry. Naturally, it is of the utmost importance to create a trusting and relaxed atmosphere when talking about sometimes potentially intimate family facts and to ensure that the subject feels comfortable talking. Both of the interviewed families had strong opinions that the method of upbringing they had chosen for their bilingual child was the right one, and hence during some of the meetings some slight reservation could be sensed, or perhaps worry as to whether the researcher was trying to check if the families were doing the right thing.

All interviews were conducted in Estonia: one of the families lived there at that time and the other family was there on a holiday at their summerhouse. Since context plays an important role in families’ language choices, it should also be noted that in this study the contextual background of the interviews influenced the language usage of the interviewees. In addition, the interviewer’s own language background, and how she related to the interviewed parents was significant: the subjects were used to seeing the interviewer as a member of the Estonian minority community in Finland. Therefore, it was important to agree with the Finnish-speaking parents that Finnish be used in the interviews, even though Estonian and/or Finnish may have normally been used in day-to-day contact with the interviewee. Three of the interviews were conducted with the children close by. In two of them, the children added their comments to the interviews. The identity of the interviewer had an influence on the parents’ responses by emphasizing the Estonian identity, language and culture-related issues.

The goal of the interviews was to reveal the parents’ everyday language usage and conscious decisions within it. It has been discovered that OPOL does not always occur in practice, and the majority of (middle-class) parents’ language contacts are monolingual and in the majority language (Juan-Garau and Perez-Vidal 2001). Parents’ cultural attitudes and interests may also have an influence on what language their children will generally operate in. These can have a bigger impact than the parents’ actions in supporting the bilingual development of the children through speaking their own language to them.

 
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