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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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code switching

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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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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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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My children won’t speak my language!

refusingA friend of mine wrote to me, saying that her pre-teenage sons have decided they won’t speak her language- Romanian- despite the fact that they both learnt it well as small children. Living currently in the USA, and with a German speaking father, they have realised that they really don’t want to use Romanian. And being kids, it’s very hard to just tell them that they should. Right? When did that ever work. As parents we know the benefits- that it will pay dividends to our children to be able to speak more than one language, that it will be one less thing for them to have to worry about when at school, that they will have access to more than one culture and be able to identify with more people. But how do we get our kids to practice what we want to preach?

Kids are natural sponges, when it comes to language. Without even realising it, they will pick up words, expressions and grammar, so as parents that’s what we need to do- provide the data. 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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Keeping up with the kids

dadkidsreading.jpg__631x0_q85Multilingualism in kids is great, isn’t it! Isn’t it? It sounds so easy- just making sure that in a multi- lingual home each parent speaks to the children in his or her mother tongue. Except that in this modern and international world, couples meet in different circumstances, and not all can speak with any degree of fluency (if at all) their partner’s language. And here’s where the linguistic complications develop.

I have met many multilingual families where the parents don’t speak the community language, or where they don’t speak their partner’s language, choosing to communicate in English or some other ‘middle ground’. What a wonderful, multilingual environment for the children- especially as, with one friend, her mother tongue is German, her partner is Arabic speaking, they communicate together in English, and they currently live in France! Their children have the best of a lot of worlds, and although they may not grow up 100% fluent in all those languages, they will certainly have a grounding in all of them, which will help them enormously in the future with language learning and life in general.

But how about the parents? This kind of situation can be a worry, especially for parents in families who follow the OPOL (one parent, one language) strategy. Parents who do not understand the other parent’s language can have a real fear of being left out of family conversations and not being able to fully follow their child’s language development. My friend speaks almost no Arabic, but now her eldest, aged 5, is able to converse fluently with her dad in Arabic, essentially cutting her out of the conversation. It’s not a deliberate action, and there is no animosity behind it, as exactly the same happens when there is a mummy- daughter conversation in German. The same happens with a family living in a new country, where the adults don’t speak the local language. It happens more often than you would think, with multi-national companies posting people to a branch location. In my situation we were sent to Austria for my husband’s work, with neither of us speaking German. Now our children attend Kindergarten in German here, and we play linguistic catch- up. Again, it’s great for the kids who are growing up bilingual, but situations like teacher- parent meetings are tough.

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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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It’s not just foreign languages that are foreign!

accentYou say “potay-toe”, I say “potah-toe”… let’s not call the whole thing off, but work on getting the message across as well as possible… at least for the kids to be able to follow our conversations!

The issue here is that despite our mutual mother tongue- English- I and my husband are from opposite sides of the world, and have very different pronunciation (not to mention vocabulary) for so many things. His Australian accent, while not strong, is still there; and my British accent is, well, decidedly British. I never really noticed it until I realised how it would affect my kids: my pre-schooler asked one morning “Mama, can I have yo-gurt /ˈjoʊ.ɡɚt/ today”… the o as in Oh my God! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: vitamin, castle and other everyday words just have different pronunciation… my husband, children and I also have to navigate through pavement vs footpath; aubergine vs eggplant;  red/ green pepper vs capsicum etc. without even starting on the cultural issues of Marmite vs Vegemite or (proper) football vs Aussie rules, etc…

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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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