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.



How to encourage language learning

travelWhy is it that learning happens at a time in our lives when we don’t understand its benefits?! Like being pushed around in a pram, being sent for a nap in the afternoon, or having all our meals made for us, as a child we just don’t appreciate the good things until they’re too late. Instead, as with generations before us, we rebel against our parents, and ignore or waste the wonderful advice they give us.

I include the advice we give and receive about learning a language in this. It’s all very well spouting off about the many benefits for a child being raised bilingually, but sometimes it’s not as easy as we would hope. In the process of raising our children we want to find a good balance of independence and conformity, but often in the process we find that we have a son or daughter who doesn’t want to do exactly what we have asked.

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Book review #3: A book for bilingual children

a fish in foreign waters bookFor those of you who haven’t come across it yet, a new book is on the market which is specifically directed at bilingual and multilingual children. “A Fish in Foreign Waters”, written by Laura Caputo- Wickham and illustrated by Pamela Goodman is perfect for all young children who are learning a second language.

While written in English (with plans to translate it into other languages in the future), this book appeals to children of all (but especially bilingual or multilingual) backgrounds. It tells the story of Rosie Ray, whose family move to another part of the ocean. When they arrive Rosie has to learn a new language and make new friends- a daunting task for anyone, but especially for a young fish. The story describes her struggle and success, and reflects nicely the lives of many children who move to a new country or have to start afresh somehow.

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Do I confuse my kids?

Bilingual_kidMy son is only 1  1/2, but already has a thousand nicknames. It seems to run in our family, the nickname thing. I have been Gorg all my life, and my sister is Monster (you have to know her to understand!). But how does Sausage/ Bumble/  Fattypuff/ Sassafras/ Saskie know his REAL name? He does though- somehow he manages it- picking the right word from plenty of options.

Kids thrive on consistency, and are often better behaved when they have a good routine to follow. By that count, the language that we teach and model for them should follow the same consistent path, and by that I mean hearing one language spoken to them, so that they can learn to speak it properly themselves. However, this is fraught with difficulties and obstacles, when you consider that many families these days have two home languages (as with many of my friends here in Vienna who have an Austrian parent and an English-speaking parent), or if not that then two accents/ dialects for the same language (as with me and my husband).

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Language learning- through My Little Pony?

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?

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Exposure: how much is enough?

images2As with everything, language needs to be used and practiced in order for it to be learnt. So for bilingual or multilingual children, this means exposure to both or all their languages as much as possible. But how much is reasonable? Are your children exposed to their minority language regularly all week long? Would you say they are exposed to it around 30 percent of the time, on average (50.4 hours per week, if you’re being literal, although that would include sleeping hours)?

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What language do you speak at the dinner table?

article-2337808-1A2F6E23000005DC-845_634x478I’ve always wondered, how do multi- language families communicate? Stupid question? Bear with me… I think I have a point.

As you settle into your happy family life with the first- born, joyously listening to him/ her speak to you in your language and your partner in another, you think your multilingual family has found the right balance.  And then you realise that baby number two is on the way, and everything you planned so perfectly may not go the way you had hoped! Every parent with two or more kids will tell you that dealing with two kids is much more complex, it’s not really one + one… and a question you never really thought of before comes up: what language will the siblings speak to each other?

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Which language should our kids be learning?

We all want to give our kids a leg- up in life, and currently the belief is that learning a second (or third) language at a young age will boost our child’s development and future prospects (See my blog: Fleeting language- here today but gone tomorrow? for more on this). Research says that our children’s brains are like sponges, and so should be sopping up everything possible, especially between the ages of 2-4. But what to chose? How do you know which language is best for your child?

There are varying points of view on this: do we go for the most important or the easiest? Or even the hardest- after all, if they can learn anything right now, then why not aim high?! I wrote before on the easiest language to learn for English speakers, (The easiest foreign language to learn), so here’s a different standpoint.

Some parents choose a heritage language, meaning that Mum, Dad, Granny, or another relative speaks the language. This is great because it provides real-life experience to use the language and gain confidence. But if only English is spoken at home, and you’re not sure which language to choose, here are 5 foreign languages experts feel will best benefit kids for their futures:

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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.


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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