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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.

Tag

Communication

Dealing with a late bloomer

late-bloomer-quotes-4Slow to speak, slow to walk, reluctant to write…

And that’s just my son! OK, I’m exaggerating here- I mean he’s only 3, so the lack of ability at writing is acceptable! (I am joking, BTW!) Each child has it’s own clock, set to it’s own time, and nothing (much) that we can do will change this. However, that doesn’t stop our internal discussions with ourselves, wondering when the next milestone will be reached.

I’m as guilty of this as the next Mum- with two children it’s impossible not to ask the million questions like: “Wasn’t Gen singing ’round and round the garden’ by now? What’s wrong with Sam? Is he EVER going to get there?!”

It’s the waiting game that’s so hard. Although we all know that we shouldn’t be pushing our children beyond their limitations, the sigh of relief when they do finally manage to do what their peers have been winging for months is huge. And it doesn’t help when there are often comparisons from other parents on Facebook etc- posting pictures of their little wonder typing on the pad,  singing etc… reinforcing our fears that our darlings are delayed in some way.

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When language summer school actually works

skateboarding-to-summer-school-in-color-clip-art-gallery

A lifetime ago I worked as a teacher on a summer school- and what an amazing, fun time it was. We had kids coming from all over the world to learn English on 3- week courses, staying in schools or colleges over the south of England, with the main requirement to have a good time and speak English “B2B”: breakfast to bedtime. Of course this didn’t always work 100%, but there were some wonderful success stories too, making me realise that the trip abroad was beneficial to the kids.

My favourite story from my years in summer school is of 2 girls who met aged probably 14 – 15 one summer, at our summer school in Kent, UK. One was from Greece, and the other from Sweden. They were the only ones of their nationality, so they had no compatriots to chat with in their own language. They hit it off with each other instantly, and had to speak English with each other in order to be mutually understood. Their basic English grew quicker than most of the other students on the course, as they used it all the time. And the girls remained friends, reunited with each other every summer at the summer school, and to this day are still good friends. They went so far as to learn each other’s language- not so good for their English, but a testament to how much they meant to each other.

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Grandparents are great!

GrannyI flew back home to Vienna recently, after a week in the UK, sans famille. It was a lovely flying experience: I had a good wander round the airport shops without being nagged to buy this and that, I sat back in my seat and dozed a bit, I ate my meal at the same time as everyone else, without spills or whines (just wine!). Travelling without kids- what a luxury!

But when I looked across the aisle I saw a mum who had it even better than me. She was travelling with her son, yes, but also with her mother. Granny sat in the middle seat, mum in the aisle, and the 6-ish year old in the window seat. The whole way through the flight Granny looked after the son- she played with him, read to him, took him to the loo and helped him with his food. Mum did exactly the same as me: flew as if she was alone. Jealous much?!

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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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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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‘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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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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