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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.

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babies

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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How to raise an enthusiastic reader

kids-readingIf I was given a penny every time I was told that reading is the best thing for kids’ development…

But it’s true!! Books are a continual source of vocabulary, colours, pictures; a breeding ground for imagination. Kids just can’t (or shouldn’t) get enough! By reading with kids and engaging in fun literacy activities, parents are encouraging lifelong learning. There are a myriad of studies that link reading to your kids to their future success in school and life, but I’m sure you’ve heard it all before (Even on my blog: Do you read to your kids?)

Instead, let’s talk about how to actually fit some useful reading time into your busy life! I promise, there’s no need for Pinterest-worthy flashcards, homemade alphabet biscuits, or endless hours reading to your unborn child – you can fit a little real learning into everyday life.

Here are tips to help you explore literacy together, for every age group:

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Book review #1: Un, Deux, Trois

We all know the tried and tested books that have gone through generations: The Hungry Caterpillar, The Little Prince (Or Le Petit Prince in its original language), anything by Roald Dahl… but sometimes it’s not easy to choose a new book, especially when you are looking for something in another language. This is the first of my recommendations for books to help your children in another language.

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Simple songs and rhymes are an excellent way to familiarize young children with another language. Un, Deux, Trois, by Opal Dunn (a specialist in books on early first and second language development), is a collection of 25 traditional French nursery rhymes, and is an excellent aid for guided learning. An illustrated vocabulary features simple words and phrases that are easy to learn and that can be used in games or everyday life. The rhymes are simple and they incorporate many things like numbers, body parts, days of the weeks etc… Children are encouraged to repeat the phrases and sing along with the rhymes, and the CD lets them know how both should sound. For those parents who are not French natives, a guide translates the more difficult phrases, with notes in the back of the book.

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Fleeting language- here today but gone tomorrow?

main-qimg-53c808191a829ea1c8dc9f5a708d556eWe have all at one point or another learnt a foreign language- at school, for a trip abroad, because of a crush on someone… and then months later realised that we can no longer speak a word of said language. How depressing is that? All that time and effort wasted on something we couldn’t even hang on to. And so with our kids, is it worth the time they spend learning another language if in the long run they might never use or need that language again?

Obviously this topic is not related to bilingual kids- those whose parents speak different languages, and so will always have recourse to those languages. Our situation is different- we are a monolingual, English- speaking family bringing up 2 children in Austria, and so teaching them (not ourselves I  hasten to add) German. However, it is more than likely that we will move to live in another country sometime in the future- a country where neither English nor German is spoken. So why bother with German? Won’t they forget it and learn the new language instead? My friend’s daughter learned Spanish from their babysitter for a year and could speak and understand it, at a 2- year old level. Now that the babysitter has moved on and she has no Spanish input, she does not remember it at all. How does that work? Does learning a language for only a year or so have any benefits (obviously we hope that it does).

Numerous studies show that speaking a second language boosts cognitive, memory, and listening skills. Research published in Psychological Science suggests that simply thinking in a foreign language helps people make quicker and better life decisions. Additionally, a study by the College Entrance Examination Board reports a direct correlation between foreign language study and high school examination scores. People who speak a foreign language often enjoy better career prospects and higher standards of living. And there are even health benefits — recent research from the University of Chicago suggests that a second language also helps prevent dementia later in life.

A lot of these are facts that we have read about before. The important part is how to keep a language once your child has started to learn it, and here are some tips.

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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.

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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!

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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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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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