my_little_pony_mcdonalds_2012_happy_meal_toys_pinkie_pie-1024x682Well, I bet you never thought that My Little Pony could be a language tool, did you?! It’s amazing what gets children talking, and really, anything and everything can help… and we need to take advantage.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I can help my daughter with her German, especially since last month I went to an educational evening about Primary schools, and realised that in order for my children to get into Bilingual School they basically have to be able to do what is says over the door- be bilingual! My daughter’s primary language is English, and although we live here in Austria, many of her good friends speak English too. Blame me- I tend to hang out with English- speaking parents, due to my lack of German skills- and it’s rubbed off. Am I limiting her future educational options by doing this?

I say many of our friends are English natives- but we do have non- English friends too! In fact one of my daughter’s best friends is Dutch, and speaks French at home too. So when the girls come together we encourage them to speak in a language the whole group can understand, and that would be German. It’s not always easy, especially as two of the girls are English speakers, and so naturally gravitate toward English at any and every opportunity. However, they certainly notice the other languages around them, and can happily communicate in German, or an intriguing mixture of German and English. All it takes is a bit of encouragement from the parents, and a reason to speak, which in this case was a wonderful collection of a friend’s My Little Pony paraphernalia, and away they go in German together.

An interesting key to language assignment is starting something in that language. My daughter has never seen My Little Pony in an English context, so she hasn’t yet learnt the words associated with the toys in English. She will now revert to German when she wants to talk about them, and only if she cannot find a word she needs will she then go back to English. This happens with a lot of her vocabulary, as she learns much of it at her German- speaking Kindergarten. As we walk home each day she tells me what she did all day, and it thrills me when she slips a German word into her sentence (as long as I can understand- her vocabulary is growing much faster than mine!).

This code- switching is ideal, although many people believe (among adults at least) that is is careless, and shows a lack of mastery of both languages. However, as Jacomine Nortier (Associate Professor in multilingualism and sociolinguistics, Utrecht Institute of Linguistics) points out, “People who switch within a sentence have to know the grammar of both languages… Whenever switching takes place within a sentence, there are strict grammatical rules to be obeyed. Nobody told the bilinguals what these rules are, there is no book or grammar that prescribes when and how to switch, and yet bilinguals know these rules!” Maybe my children are a little young to be talking about rules, but we’re setting the groundwork for the future when rules become an integral part of learning.

For our children, the context of learning German (or any language) while playing is fun, and encourages them to speak and interact together naturally. It doesn’t matter what the toy is, from My Little Pony to Lego, ball games to chess: children react to specific linguistic input, and in a bilingual or multilingual situation will use the words available, whether German, English or French, to convey what they want to say. So we’re hoping to meet up with My Little Pony again soon… in the long run it will pay dividends.