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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

September 2015

Learning a dialect or the mainstream language?

012_dogs_regional_accentsSometimes learning a language, or getting your kids to learn, is an uphill struggle. Not only is there a new set of vocabulary, different grammar, and sometimes a whole new script to learn, but also we have a million people telling us we’re doing it wrong, or even that we’re learning the wrong language. For many people though, the language to learn isn’t a choice- we learn what our parents speak. Sometimes it’s a mainstream language, but often it isn’t- maybe one parent speaks a dialect, or has 2 languages, one of which is a minority. How do we decide which is the most important for our children to learn?

If you look online, newspapers and other websites spout the financial gains behind many of the “bigger” languages. But how important is it to you that the languages that your child speaks are “valuable” in the job market in the future? Does it matter that a language is not an official language or that it is only spoken by a relatively small group of people? The neurological advantages of learning any additional languages, plus the cultural wealth that languages and dialects bring are rewards in themselves. The usability in future is, or should only be, a positive side effect, but our society is insanely success oriented.

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The optimal age to learn a new language

110_375x266Young children are said to pick up languages with a sponge-like ease, but for many older children and adults at different stages of life learning a foreign language is an overwhelming, if not an impossible, task. Or so it would appear.

When we focus on young children learning any language, it is recognised that input is much more ‘organic’, and as such, is a natural state to develop a language fully. Children learn implicitly; that’s to say they absorb and process a new language without having the whole cognitive process described to them beforehand. Therefore, the younger you are, the better you are meant to be able to pick up a language to sound ‘native’.

Much research has been done into the cognitive development of children and their optimal learning age. According to the critical period hypothesis, (CPH- a hypothesis based on research done in the 1950s) there’s a certain window in which second language acquisition skills are at their peak. Researchers disagree over just how long that window lasts – some, such as Krashen (Lateralization, language learning, and the critical period: Some new evidence., 1973) say that it ends by the age of 5 or 6, while others say that it extends all the way through puberty – but after that period is over, it becomes much harder for a person to learn a new language. It’s not impossible, but children in that critical period have an almost universal success rate at achieving near fluency and perfect accents, while an adult learner’s results are more hit-and-miss, losing the plasticity needed to develop accent.

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Keeping the languages separate

mixingMany children in a bilingual household come out with the cutest of sentences: “Je cherche mes trousers, Maman”… “Este es una bed… mi baby puede dormir aquí”. It sounds so sweet, but is it what we really want to hear?

Although I previously wrote a post on mixing languages (see my post: “Do I confuse my kids?“), for many parents it’s frustrating to have their children speak to them in a jumble of their two mother tongues. Generally children learn to sort them out on their own, especially when there are clear-cut situations when they use each language, such as in my situation, where it’s English at home, German at Kindy, or with many of my friends here in Austria where they have one language with Daddy, and the other with Mummy. Kids learn to code switch well in this kind of situation (See: “How do they know: kids and code-switching“), their brains are very flexible, so once they learn two (or more) languages properly, they will have no problem whatsoever switching between them.

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Dads need to read

readingdadWho is the reader in your family? The chances are it’s mum- reading bedtime stories to the kids night after night, becoming word perfect in the favourite book of the week- in our case Quentin Blake’s “Mrs. Armitage: Queen of the Road”. Why is that? In our family it’s often because bedtime happens before Dad makes it home from work (so he takes over at the weekend), but the reasons are varied for other families.

Before you have a go at me for making such a gender-biased assumption, research made by Booktrust, the UK’s leading literacy organization, found that only one out of eight UK fathers takes the lead with reading to his children. Dads might be great in other areas, like playing sports, fixing broken toys and general rough and tumbling, but 75% of dads admitted to a lack of confidence when it came to reading to their child.

Studies have shown that when fathers read to their children and share other care-giving responsibilities with mum, their children have better attachment, they have higher self-esteem, and show better social competence. The time fathers spend reading to their children does not just translate into literacy skills but also helps the child to have better impulse control and to show a greater ability to take initiative. In addition, if dad spends time with them at an early age, research has shown that they develop to become more empathetic. A fathers’ involvement in their child’s reading is proven to boost academic success and leads to improved social and emotional well-being.

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Come on, Austria!!

smokingRant on…

Today I took my kids to Kindergarten- a task that is usually my husband’s, but he had to rush off for a meeting. It’s a task I enjoy doing- once in a while. I like it because I see the other half of the families that I see in the afternoon – it looks like our routine of Daddy-drop-off and Mummy-pick-up (or vice-versa) is repeated all over the city.

However, today I didn’t enjoy it quite so much. I was a bit shocked actually. And then I was indignant. And now I’m writing about it.

Smoking. I couldn’t believe the number of parents (I’ll assume they were) walking along the street with their children, and smoking. One even with the baby in a sling- puffing away over her head, using her as an ash tray for all I know. Ok, for most of you smokers, this was the first trip out of the house today, and you are proud to say that you don’t smoke at home any more (probably not true). So this was the first chance you had to fill your lungs with the ‘good stuff’. You just couldn’t wait to get your little ones that 500 metres down the road to drop them off first, before lighting up. Really? Really??

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Manners: the Ps & Qs of language

mannersLast month I and my children went to spend a couple of weeks at Granny’s house. While I believe that my children generally have good manners, there is plenty of room for improvement, as I saw my mother thinking when my 4-year old interrupted our conversation endlessly, and my 1- year old constantly threw his things on the floor. Obviously, it is time to serve up some etiquette lessons. But what is age-appropriate? Is my preschooler mature enough to learn to wait her turn in a conversation? Can I expect my toddler to sit still and not to play with his food?

Learning to communicate is more than just opening your mouth and babbling… manners are a key part too. As parents it’s our responsibility to teach our children what to say, and what not to say; how to behave and to avoid things we shouldn’t do. Is it harder in this international world? Some things that are acceptable in our own culture are frowned upon in another, so how do we manage to teach what they need? We need to keep the goals realistic though- we’ll never get our 2-year-olds to chew with their mouth closed! Here are some basics- things they can start to pick up at different ages:

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