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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

first words

Talking: how much is enough?

should-my-toddler-be-speaking-yetMy son, at 25 months, is not a natural talker. Strange, being brought up in a family with a chatterbox sister and very talkative Mum and Dad, that he hasn’t mastered the art more easily. At around the 20-month point I started thinking about whether this was normal or not, and now, 5 months later, I still ponder on the question of whether he’s a slow starter, or whether I should be thinking about professional help.

I read about this a lot in various forums: parents being recommended speech therapy for their kids because the majority or minority language isn’t on a par with the other kids in the playgroup. Since when did we get so keen on comparing? Weren’t we all taught that it wasn’t healthy to measure our children according to their peers, in terms of growth, number of teeth, ability to do long division etc? So why now does it matter if language production is a few months behind little Johnny at Kindy?

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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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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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Keeping the languages separate

mixingMany children in a bilingual household come out with the cutest of sentences: “Je cherche mes trousers, Maman”… “Este es una bed… mi baby puede dormir aquí”. It sounds so sweet, but is it what we really want to hear?

Although I previously wrote a post on mixing languages (see my post: “Do I confuse my kids?“), for many parents it’s frustrating to have their children speak to them in a jumble of their two mother tongues. Generally children learn to sort them out on their own, especially when there are clear-cut situations when they use each language, such as in my situation, where it’s English at home, German at Kindy, or with many of my friends here in Austria where they have one language with Daddy, and the other with Mummy. Kids learn to code switch well in this kind of situation (See: “How do they know: kids and code-switching“), their brains are very flexible, so once they learn two (or more) languages properly, they will have no problem whatsoever switching between them.

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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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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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What language do you speak at the dinner table?

article-2337808-1A2F6E23000005DC-845_634x478I’ve always wondered, how do multi- language families communicate? Stupid question? Bear with me… I think I have a point.

As you settle into your happy family life with the first- born, joyously listening to him/ her speak to you in your language and your partner in another, you think your multilingual family has found the right balance.  And then you realise that baby number two is on the way, and everything you planned so perfectly may not go the way you had hoped! Every parent with two or more kids will tell you that dealing with two kids is much more complex, it’s not really one + one… and a question you never really thought of before comes up: what language will the siblings speak to each other?

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Book review #1: Un, Deux, Trois

We all know the tried and tested books that have gone through generations: The Hungry Caterpillar, The Little Prince (Or Le Petit Prince in its original language), anything by Roald Dahl… but sometimes it’s not easy to choose a new book, especially when you are looking for something in another language. This is the first of my recommendations for books to help your children in another language.

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Simple songs and rhymes are an excellent way to familiarize young children with another language. Un, Deux, Trois, by Opal Dunn (a specialist in books on early first and second language development), is a collection of 25 traditional French nursery rhymes, and is an excellent aid for guided learning. An illustrated vocabulary features simple words and phrases that are easy to learn and that can be used in games or everyday life. The rhymes are simple and they incorporate many things like numbers, body parts, days of the weeks etc… Children are encouraged to repeat the phrases and sing along with the rhymes, and the CD lets them know how both should sound. For those parents who are not French natives, a guide translates the more difficult phrases, with notes in the back of the book.

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