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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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cultural identity

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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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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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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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 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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