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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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education

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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It’s about more than just languages

multi-ethnic

Bringing up children is a challenge. No it’s not: it’s a heart- wrenching, tear- filled, laughter- inducing journey of a challenge. Sometimes I feel that I’m not up to it (like it’s a choice!), and then I’m nudged back into life by a comment made by a friend, or something I hear on the news. Today it was: “Why is it so bloody difficult to find little non-pink baby dolls. It’s ridiculous in this day and age. 😡 It actually freaks me out a bit.”

Whether part of a monolingual or multilingual family, we have certain ideals that we want to fulfil, and beliefs that we want our children to grow up with. These may well differ depending on where we are from in the world but the majority of us now believe in an equal society, one in which girls and boys, black and white, straight and gay are treated with the same respect and compassion. As parents, we have the responsibility to our children to bring them up with open and accepting minds. And it’s not always as easy as we hope. Raising children who see beyond the colour of a person’s skin takes a conscious effort on the parents’ part. We must deliberately teach respect and cooperation. We must destroy the “us versus them” mentality that has slowly permeated our culture.

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Is the Internet good or bad for our children?

child-using-computerThese days it seems that almost from birth, children are immersed in a digitally rich environment, from tablets to desktops and texting to social networks. Despite efforts to keep technology away from children, there is no way that any parent can stop it all from becoming part of a child’s life, or at least maybe at first, but not once they reach 5 or older. But if we step back a little bit, we can see that there are advantages to allowing some access to technology. Digital technologies have potential benefits in the areas of cognitive, social and physical development. They have huge appeal for children, and this can be harnessed to help children socialise, develop and learn. Kids who are old enough to swipe a screen can have access to the world.

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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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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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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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The optimal age to learn a new language

110_375x266Young children are said to pick up languages with a sponge-like ease, but for many older children and adults at different stages of life learning a foreign language is an overwhelming, if not an impossible, task. Or so it would appear.

When we focus on young children learning any language, it is recognised that input is much more ‘organic’, and as such, is a natural state to develop a language fully. Children learn implicitly; that’s to say they absorb and process a new language without having the whole cognitive process described to them beforehand. Therefore, the younger you are, the better you are meant to be able to pick up a language to sound ‘native’.

Much research has been done into the cognitive development of children and their optimal learning age. According to the critical period hypothesis, (CPH- a hypothesis based on research done in the 1950s) there’s a certain window in which second language acquisition skills are at their peak. Researchers disagree over just how long that window lasts – some, such as Krashen (Lateralization, language learning, and the critical period: Some new evidence., 1973) say that it ends by the age of 5 or 6, while others say that it extends all the way through puberty – but after that period is over, it becomes much harder for a person to learn a new language. It’s not impossible, but children in that critical period have an almost universal success rate at achieving near fluency and perfect accents, while an adult learner’s results are more hit-and-miss, losing the plasticity needed to develop accent.

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Dads need to read

readingdadWho is the reader in your family? The chances are it’s mum- reading bedtime stories to the kids night after night, becoming word perfect in the favourite book of the week- in our case Quentin Blake’s “Mrs. Armitage: Queen of the Road”. Why is that? In our family it’s often because bedtime happens before Dad makes it home from work (so he takes over at the weekend), but the reasons are varied for other families.

Before you have a go at me for making such a gender-biased assumption, research made by Booktrust, the UK’s leading literacy organization, found that only one out of eight UK fathers takes the lead with reading to his children. Dads might be great in other areas, like playing sports, fixing broken toys and general rough and tumbling, but 75% of dads admitted to a lack of confidence when it came to reading to their child.

Studies have shown that when fathers read to their children and share other care-giving responsibilities with mum, their children have better attachment, they have higher self-esteem, and show better social competence. The time fathers spend reading to their children does not just translate into literacy skills but also helps the child to have better impulse control and to show a greater ability to take initiative. In addition, if dad spends time with them at an early age, research has shown that they develop to become more empathetic. A fathers’ involvement in their child’s reading is proven to boost academic success and leads to improved social and emotional well-being.

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