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Kids and Language

As a mother of 2 small children I am continually astounded by their language development- the words they pick up and the way they manage to play with multiple languages already. As we're currently living in Vienna they are having to master German on top of English… so here are some of my ponderings on the linguistic theme.

Month

December 2014

Christmas

My daughter asked me: “Mama, what is Christmas?”christmas

Pick the correct answer:
a) a meaningless opportunity to spend more money than is sensible on objects that we probably don’t want and won’t appreciate.
b) a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to Earth to save mankind.
c) a day when a jolly fat man comes to everyone’s house to spread gifts and goodwill.

It’s a good question. And with a 3- year old in mind I’m not sure of the right answer.

But what will I tell her?

My Christmas always included a visit to Church, a walk along a very cold and windy beach while my mother and grandmother cooked the turkey, and the Queen’s speech at 3:00. These traditions probably won’t be passed on to my children, partly because we have no beach within 10 hours of home (I don’t count the Donau channel as a beach- I need the sea out there!), and my husband is about as likely to listen to the Queen as he is to play a round of golf with Kim Jong-un. But I like to think of what I will pass on, and how I will explain this season to my ever- questioning daughter.

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Following Peshawar, the future of education in Pakistan

It’s taken me almost a week to muster the calm required to write this post.

As a mother I am horrified by the massacre which took place in a school in Peshawar, Pakistan last Tuesday, and my heart goes out to the mothers and fathers who have lost their children in this senseless and unjustified attack. Over 148 people, mostly children, were slaughtered, and I have not been able to watch the news without feeling terror that this kind of thing can happen somewhere in the world.

As a teacher I am horrified that a school is the chosen location of the Taliban militants. No child should be afraid to receive an education, and no child should be terrorised in their school- a place that every child should be able to feel safe and protected. We have seen before with the attack on Malala Yousafzai also in Pakistan that our young are not safe from this kind of targeting, but the scale and brutality of this outrage has exceeded anything that has gone before.

And as a human I am horrified at the attack on innocents, who should not be caught up in this appalling quasi- religious war. Whether adults or children, in Pakistan or the rest of the world, to have innocent people as the deliberate target shows how little mercy the extremists show, and requires a powerful response from the Pakistani government and other world leaders.

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No Gender December… for more than just toys.

pink_vs_blueLarissa Waters has written a very interesting article about gender-related toys, and how strong gender stereotypes that are imposed upon children at an early age can have long-term impacts, including influencing self-perception and career aspirations.

Gender inequality is perpetuated with more than toys: even when you look along bookshelves or try to buy neutral clothes for boys and girls there is a definite bias of colour and language, and with Christmas around the corner more and more of these items are being bought and taken home. Out-dated stereotypes about girls and boys perpetuate gender inequality, which can lead to very serious problems later on in life. Issues such as the gender pay gap are very contentious at the moment, and more serious areas such as domestic violence or workplace abuse are based on this original inequality.

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Where words come from

abc_baby_speak_090217_mn“Mama, I really like your necklace. It’s so dainty!”

Dainty? Dainty? ! Where on Earth did that come from? My daughter, then aged about 2, uttered that gem à propos nothing at all, and I would swear on all that I hold dear to me that I have never used that word in front of her. Of course, despite the fact that I am her mother and therefore should be her only source of inspiration and worship, I’m sure she listens to the world around her and picks things up accordingly. But some things seem so unlikely. When was the last time YOU used the word ‘dainty’? Exactly!!

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First words

Every child is individual. Of that we are sure. But according to Clark (First Language Acquisition, 2003), there are certain things that most children learn at the same time as their peers- despite language and cultural differences.

Words are one of these things- studies have shown that many of us learn the same words at approximately the same time. Here we see the point at which 50% of children say a particular word:

Months       Words

12                 daddy, mommy

13                 bye

14                 dog, hi

15                 baby, ball, no,

16                 banana, eye, nose, bottle, juice, bird, duck, cookie, woof, moo, ouch,                        baabaaa, night night, book, balloon, boat

17                cracker, apple, cheese, ear, keys, bath, peekaboo, vroom, up, down

18                 grandma, grandpa, sock, hat, truck, boat, thank you, cat

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The right to a childhood and an education

downloadWhat a wonderful thing it is that Malala Yousafzay and Kailash Satyarthi have won the Nobel Peace Prize this year. The Nobel committee described both laureates as “champions of peace”. They received this honour for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.

Malala Yousafzay said she was there to stand up for the rights of forgotten and frightened children, and raise their voice rather than pity them. Despite her youth, Malala has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations. This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances.

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What do our kids really need?

Every morning I follow the same routine: send the kids off to Kindy and daddy off to work, and spend the next 30 – 45 minutes tidying up. Just how I like to spend my time. I haven’t yet managed to teach my two small ones to clear up after themselves (Daddy isn’t great at it either- but nor am I), so the living room is a litter of toys, books and crayons, discarded clothes, and other assorted tissues, scraps and things.

Toys though. They’re the ones that get me most. I love that my two have enough to be able to choose what they want to play with, without stereotyping them into gender- specific or age- specific brackets, but as I sit staring at a piece of Lego that has made its way to the office desk I wonder: maybe we have too much.

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What is the best age to start a second language?

toddlers2My kids, aged 1 and 3, currently go to a bilingual Kindergarten in Vienna. They speak (well, the 1-year old not so much) both German and English at Kindy, and exclusively English at home. And it works! Every day my daughter surprises me with a new word in German, or part of a song that she has picked up from the other kids… yesterday it was something about St. Nikolaus with her Dutch friend and an Austrian child as they sat on a swing in the park. It’s amazing how absorbent she is- a little language sponge soaking up the verbal spills.

We are surrounded here with children in the same situation: bilingual and multilingual toddlers, who are happy and confident speaking to one parent in one language, the other in another, and yet a third at Kindy. Indeed, it has become the norm, with mixed nationality marriages requiring the offspring to grow up with two cultures and languages. So why is there still a debate about when a second language should be introduced. The only answer should be: RIGHT NOW!!

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The easiest foreign language to learn

Modern-languages-007So we’re talking about learning a language? Well, I’m a Brit…. ‘Nuf said. Languages just aren’t our forté. Or… we just know that we don’t need to learn another language really, as the rest of the world does so well learning ours.

It’s a shame, in so many senses of the word. Learning a new language is so enriching, as it’s impossible not to learn a bit of the other country’s culture at the same time, and in a world as accessible as ours is these days we all travel and should get to experience more than “Egg and Chips, please” in Magaluf. AND (I use capitals as I can hear myself saying this loudly as I type) if we didn’t need another excuse, learning a new language is good for our brains (helps stave off dementia or Alzheimer’s), good for our wallet (better jobs are out there for multiple language speakers), and good for our ego (who doesn’t want to be the one to be able to chat to the cute barman/maid on holiday?).

But enough of the tirade. Maybe we need a bit of encouragement instead of the usual scold and lecture. For us lucky English language speakers there are short cuts we can use when it comes to learning, which make it easier in the long run to pick up a few words of the foreign language. Firstly, the English language is closely related to many Germanic and Romance dialects, so when it comes to language study we aren’t really starting from scratch, English being a hybrid of the two. And secondly, there are millions (and I mean, literally, millions) of teaching aids for us to learn a language- despite our reluctance to do it, language learning has been researched and written about ad nauseam. So you don’t need to try too hard to be able to learn a few snippets of whichever language takes your fancy. And which one might that be?

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