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.


January 2015

Do you read to your kids? Part 2

dadreadingThere are so many things that I, as a teacher, wish that people accepted regarding education. The list is, actually, endless: it lowers prejudice, it improves healthcare, it gains you respect, it makes your world safer, it makes you self reliant, it improves your confidence, it brings equality, it brings you money, it helps with economic growth,  it turns your dreams into reality… (I could go on, but I think I have made my point). I have never heard someone say “I wish I wasn’t so damn well-educated!”

Now that we have accepted the above fact, that education is good for us, how do we go about getting one? Or more importantly, how do we make sure that our children get one?

Continue reading “Do you read to your kids? Part 2”


Making friends… from an early age

stop_your_kids_fighting_5_18v3jps-18v3jqb1I sit and watch my two children interacting with other children, at the park, at Kindy, on play-dates. While the 1-year old is still into his own things, watching the others from time to time but not really interacting, my 3-year old seems to have some good friends, and talks about them a lot- when is X coming to my house? Is Y going to be at the park? It’s breathtaking to think that while they are still so little kids can learn to forge meaningful relationships, even when they are not able to communicate fully or express themselves always as easily as they would like.

Can toddlers really make friends? Surely, they are too young (or at least so busy defending their own toys) that they haven’t the time or energy to make friends?From the age of three or four, friendships can begin to take on real meaning for children – they begin to really connect and empathise with others.

Continue reading “Making friends… from an early age”

How do they know? Kids and Code Switching

preschool kidsMy daughter and I walked to Kindy the other day, chatting happily about what she was going to do once there: “Valentina and I will do some cooking, and go shopping. I need some new shoes, Mama!” It was a great conversation- fluent, pretty accurate for a 3-year old, and funny.

5 minutes later, as we walk in through the door of the Kindy, Valentina runs up to us. “Hallo Genny,” she says, and to me: “Sie ist mine beste Freundin!

To which Genny replies: “Hallo. Was machsts du? Ich muss einkaufen!”

And off they go together, for a day of German shopping and cooking.

How does she do it? She’s like a squirrel, eating nuts from 2 different trees! My German is limited to the above (and even that is probably not grammatically correct or well-spelt (spelled?)!), yet she is able to communicate with me in my language, and with her friends and teachers in theirs. Just like that. The motion of walking through the Kindy door is all it takes for her to switch languages, and she knows which language to use with which person.

Continue reading “How do they know? Kids and Code Switching”

Do you read to your kids?

parents-reading-to-childrenI guess this should come as no surprise- that the more you read the bigger your vocabulary will be. Research has been done into the way that vocabulary improves with different levels of reading, and while the results aren’t groundbreaking, it’s very interesting to see that an enthusiastic reader will build up a much bigger vocabulary in quite a short amount of time.

The online testing site, Test Your Vocabulary  has done a lot of research into how our vocabulary levels build and change throughout our lives, and the results are very clear- reading is important!

At around age 4, when children are only first starting to read, their average vocabulary levels are roughly equivalent in accordance with reading habits- as one would expect. This comes in at around 6,000 words. That to me is already an amazing number- they really are sponges! Then, it’s between the crucial ages of 4–15 where reading makes all the difference in the rate at which children increase their vocabulary. We can calculate the differences, although these should be taken as “ballpark approximations” at most, given the noisiness (that there are random fluctuations) of the data:

Reading habits Vocabulary growth per day, ages 4–15
Reads “lots” +4.1 words/day
Reads “somewhat” +2.6 words/day
Reads “not much” +1.4 words/day

Continue reading “Do you read to your kids?”

How far would you go to learn a new language?

In our lives and culture there are certain taboos, ranging from mild to particularly offensive. Burping in public, PDAs, abortion, discussing a person’s sexual orientation- these can upset some people, and we avoid them, or at least don’t talk about them. Another of these is drug taking- seen on the whole as inappropriate or unacceptable, when in actual fact drugs are taken by a wide range of people for a number of different reasons: caffeine, nicotine, pain killers etc.

And now research has indicated that drugs may exist which would enhance and improve our ability to learn a language. Wow!! How many of us feel that we aren’t good language learners, and would like some way to get ahead with this one task. For English native speakers at least, language learning is a challenge- we are in the minority around the world of people who speak only one language, and so this would be a wonderful step forward to being able to compete on the international stage better.

But what are the moral and ethical implications of medically enhanced education? Would you take a pill if it would help your ability to learn? The British Academy and the Guardian debated this point (July 2014), and covered some very interesting areas. To watch this, the short version is here, and the long version is here.

Continue reading “How far would you go to learn a new language?”

Tips for teaching children a second (or third… or fourth) language

Bilingual_Kids_800x600Despite the fact that, being British, I shouldn’t be able to speak more than just English (and even that not very well- according to some!), I am a strong believer in multiple language learning. We all know that kids absorb languages quickly (see my previous post: What is the best age to start learning a second language?) and seemingly more easily than adults, so logically we should start at an early age. As parents it’s our responsibility to help and nurture the innate ability, but it doesn’t always come naturally to us, so here is my baker’s dozen of tips for teaching children a second language.

NB. While I write this I think about my forays into language learning, and whether it’s appropriate for a non- native speaker to teach a language (non- professionally- I have many friends who teach a foreign language, but they have training and experience, and a certain level of language knowledge which I don’t). I have often questioned the idea, as I would myself hate to teach my kids bad grammar or pronunciation. But, within my limits I am happy speaking a smattering of German, French or Spanish with my two. I believe it opens their ears and makes them more receptive, and hopefully, as in my case when I was a child, encourages them to want to learn more. (But more about this later… I think this topic deserves it’s own post.)

1. Learning should be fun. The more fun it is to learn a language, the more a child will want to stay with it. Learning while playing is the best way to learn because it creates emotional attachments, and emotion is the door to learning. Even if it’s only saying the words of the game you’re playing in both your mother tongue and the second language, these words will be absorbed and repeated at a later date.

2. Learn by doing. Play at shop keeping, make a snack, or take a walk. While you are interacting with your children during these activities, speak a second or third language. As above, keep it fun!

Continue reading “Tips for teaching children a second (or third… or fourth) language”

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