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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.

When Christmas isn’t just the 25th

father-christmas-saint-02We’re at that time of year again- when you can’t enter a shop without being assaulted by festive music, the waft of cinnamon-infused everything, and hungry shoppers desperate for that last-minute bargain. Ahh, Christmas. How I have missed you.

Can I still call this time of year Christmas though? With friends from all over the world who celebrate different things from me I don’t want to insult anyone. I have even started saying ‘Happy Holidays!’ to my friends and students, complete with an American accent and lop-sided grin to go with it, as it feels so far removed from what I was brought up with and actually feel as the right expression for this season. If you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Three Kings’ Day, you have a right to have it recognised. Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, or happy holidays are all pleasantries. There’s nothing remotely hostile in those words. Sure, they may not be the words that some would choose to receive, but they’re far from insults.

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OP… OL… Oh God!?!

language-processing-mainHow far can OPOL go for most people, and how rigid should we be with it? Is there even a “right answer” to this question? Certainly there are a million viewpoints on it.  OPOL is the preferred choice for many bilingual families (as I wrote in my previous blog: Do I confuse my kids?), but it is not the only choice.

George Saunders wrote in his book “Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens” that the “one person, one language” approach “ensures that the children have regular exposure to, and have to make use of each language. This is particularly important for the minority language, which has little outside support.” This is a logical approach, but is not always possible.

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The ‘Mother Tongue’ of multilingual children

mother tongueWhat do you consider to be the mother tongue of your multilingual child? Would you say it’s literally the ‘tongue’ of the mother (even if that is the minority language) or all of the languages spoken by your child? The language where they were born? Or even the school language??

To be honest- who cares? What difference does it make to our children? Well, often schools and states do care… children have to indicate what their first language is for the school records, and many health care providers etc. ask for the mother tongue too. There are other form- filling situations  where you are only allowed to put in one language… wouldn’t it be nice if we could just write “bilingual”, and leave it at that!

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How to increase exposure to the minority language

playgroupPassing on language to your children sounds like it should be something easy to do- after all, we all speak one/ two/ multiple languages- we just need to speak them in front of our kids and let osmosis do the rest! Oh, if only it were that simple. Maybe when there is just one language for the children to absorb this relaxed approach is fine, but when we want our children to be multilingual we need to put a bit more effort into it.

30 is the magic number according to researchers: the percentage of hours each week children need exposure to the minority language in order for it to stand a chance of being native (as I wrote in my previous post: Exposure; how much is enough?). No matter how arbitrary that number is, it’s certainly a good idea to maximise exposure, and make every minute count.

How? Well, there are a lot of ways in which parents can build contact with language, some which take more preparation and maybe money, some which are instant ways to fill 5 minutes. Here are my pick of some tried and tested ones:

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Talking: how much is enough?

should-my-toddler-be-speaking-yetMy son, at 25 months, is not a natural talker. Strange, being brought up in a family with a chatterbox sister and very talkative Mum and Dad, that he hasn’t mastered the art more easily. At around the 20-month point I started thinking about whether this was normal or not, and now, 5 months later, I still ponder on the question of whether he’s a slow starter, or whether I should be thinking about professional help.

I read about this a lot in various forums: parents being recommended speech therapy for their kids because the majority or minority language isn’t on a par with the other kids in the playgroup. Since when did we get so keen on comparing? Weren’t we all taught that it wasn’t healthy to measure our children according to their peers, in terms of growth, number of teeth, ability to do long division etc? So why now does it matter if language production is a few months behind little Johnny at Kindy?

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‘Magical thinking’, or just lies?

children-lying“Sammy, did you do a poo?” (I can smell him from the other side of the room)

“No, mama.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, mama!” (Fervent shaking of the head)

“Shall I check?”

Silence. Sammy waddles away to hide, trousers hanging out behind him.

This is the norm with my toddler at the moment, and for that matter with my 4-year old. I’m not talking about the poo, but the lying.

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Repetition: the mother of all learning!

fish gameI sit in the living room watching my husband playing with my son. It’s the fishing game, with a number of different coloured fish and a magnetic fishing rod. “Blue! Get the blue one! No, that’s white. This one’s the blue one!” Click. “Yes. Blue. A blue fish!”

We have played this game a hundred times- my son loves the colours, the simple action, the easy success. It might drive me mad, but for him it’s wonderful! And it’s a great way to learn, as the instructions are simple and repetitive, and the vocabulary is useful and visually clear. It’s the same with books, songs and television shows geared towards the youngest of learners- lots of repetitive actions, sounds and colours for them to learn to associate with.

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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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