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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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English speakers

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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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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Where words come from

abc_baby_speak_090217_mn“Mama, I really like your necklace. It’s so dainty!”

Dainty? Dainty? ! Where on Earth did that come from? My daughter, then aged about 2, uttered that gem à propos nothing at all, and I would swear on all that I hold dear to me that I have never used that word in front of her. Of course, despite the fact that I am her mother and therefore should be her only source of inspiration and worship, I’m sure she listens to the world around her and picks things up accordingly. But some things seem so unlikely. When was the last time YOU used the word ‘dainty’? Exactly!!

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First words

Every child is individual. Of that we are sure. But according to Clark (First Language Acquisition, 2003), there are certain things that most children learn at the same time as their peers- despite language and cultural differences.

Words are one of these things- studies have shown that many of us learn the same words at approximately the same time. Here we see the point at which 50% of children say a particular word:

Months       Words

12                 daddy, mommy

13                 bye

14                 dog, hi

15                 baby, ball, no,

16                 banana, eye, nose, bottle, juice, bird, duck, cookie, woof, moo, ouch,                        baabaaa, night night, book, balloon, boat

17                cracker, apple, cheese, ear, keys, bath, peekaboo, vroom, up, down

18                 grandma, grandpa, sock, hat, truck, boat, thank you, cat

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What is the best age to start a second language?

toddlers2My kids, aged 1 and 3, currently go to a bilingual Kindergarten in Vienna. They speak (well, the 1-year old not so much) both German and English at Kindy, and exclusively English at home. And it works! Every day my daughter surprises me with a new word in German, or part of a song that she has picked up from the other kids… yesterday it was something about St. Nikolaus with her Dutch friend and an Austrian child as they sat on a swing in the park. It’s amazing how absorbent she is- a little language sponge soaking up the verbal spills.

We are surrounded here with children in the same situation: bilingual and multilingual toddlers, who are happy and confident speaking to one parent in one language, the other in another, and yet a third at Kindy. Indeed, it has become the norm, with mixed nationality marriages requiring the offspring to grow up with two cultures and languages. So why is there still a debate about when a second language should be introduced. The only answer should be: RIGHT NOW!!

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Speaking vs. Communicating

How important is learning a language to you? It all depends on your country of origin- English speakers generally are less than enthusiastic about learning foreign languages as we know that we are lucky enough to be able to count on English to get by in most places. People coming from countries where the language is less wide-spread need to learn another language, and generally are very capable of speaking two or three languages. An international study a few years ago showed that children from nations such as Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania are more likely to be taught a number of foreign languages than their peers in the UK.

Some people are obsessed with learning a foreign tongue.  I know I am- living here in Vienna I daily have to come to terms with the fact that I don’t speak German well- or at least not to a level where I feel comfortable and can manage most social interaction. Obviously this is needs based; a situation which many people have and will never find themselves in.

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