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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

fluency

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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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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My children won’t speak my language!

refusingA friend of mine wrote to me, saying that her pre-teenage sons have decided they won’t speak her language- Romanian- despite the fact that they both learnt it well as small children. Living currently in the USA, and with a German speaking father, they have realised that they really don’t want to use Romanian. And being kids, it’s very hard to just tell them that they should. Right? When did that ever work. As parents we know the benefits- that it will pay dividends to our children to be able to speak more than one language, that it will be one less thing for them to have to worry about when at school, that they will have access to more than one culture and be able to identify with more people. But how do we get our kids to practice what we want to preach?

Kids are natural sponges, when it comes to language. Without even realising it, they will pick up words, expressions and grammar, so as parents that’s what we need to do- provide the data. The important part is how to keep a language once your child has started to learn it, and here are some tips:

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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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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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How to raise an enthusiastic reader

kids-readingIf I was given a penny every time I was told that reading is the best thing for kids’ development…

But it’s true!! Books are a continual source of vocabulary, colours, pictures; a breeding ground for imagination. Kids just can’t (or shouldn’t) get enough! By reading with kids and engaging in fun literacy activities, parents are encouraging lifelong learning. There are a myriad of studies that link reading to your kids to their future success in school and life, but I’m sure you’ve heard it all before (Even on my blog: Do you read to your kids?)

Instead, let’s talk about how to actually fit some useful reading time into your busy life! I promise, there’s no need for Pinterest-worthy flashcards, homemade alphabet biscuits, or endless hours reading to your unborn child – you can fit a little real learning into everyday life.

Here are tips to help you explore literacy together, for every age group:

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