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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

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 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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Getting your toddler to speak… temptation and treats!

images (3)Some friends recently came to me to ask about how to teach a language (in this case English) to their 2- year olds. Interesting, I thought, especially as my 20- month old still doesn’t really speak very much- he hums his way through a lot of songs, but words aren’t his forté. However, as he has plenty of friends who are speaking quite a lot, I started to think of ways that I could “tempt” him to speak. We all need a little encouragement from time to time… maybe some of these will work (without being too cruel to be kind):

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Book review #2: Winners of children’s book awards

It’s hard to choose a new book for your children- especially with such a wonderful, wide range out there and recommendations coming at you thick and fast from all sources, reputable or not. Of course word-of-mouth suggestions are often the best, but it’s nice once in a while to find something new and feel comfortable that you have made a good choice for your child.

The Randolph Caldecott Medal annually recognizes the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. The Caldecott and Newbery Medals are the most prestigious American children’s book awards, and so, despite the fact that I am not American myself, I love to look and see who has won, read the excellent stories and admire the wonderful illustrations of not only the winners but also the other ‘Honor (sic.) Books’.

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Do you read to your kids?

parents-reading-to-childrenI guess this should come as no surprise- that the more you read the bigger your vocabulary will be. Research has been done into the way that vocabulary improves with different levels of reading, and while the results aren’t groundbreaking, it’s very interesting to see that an enthusiastic reader will build up a much bigger vocabulary in quite a short amount of time.

The online testing site, Test Your Vocabulary  has done a lot of research into how our vocabulary levels build and change throughout our lives, and the results are very clear- reading is important!

At around age 4, when children are only first starting to read, their average vocabulary levels are roughly equivalent in accordance with reading habits- as one would expect. This comes in at around 6,000 words. That to me is already an amazing number- they really are sponges! Then, it’s between the crucial ages of 4–15 where reading makes all the difference in the rate at which children increase their vocabulary. We can calculate the differences, although these should be taken as “ballpark approximations” at most, given the noisiness (that there are random fluctuations) of the data:

Reading habits Vocabulary growth per day, ages 4–15
Reads “lots” +4.1 words/day
Reads “somewhat” +2.6 words/day
Reads “not much” +1.4 words/day

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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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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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