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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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language learning

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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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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How to encourage language learning

travelWhy is it that learning happens at a time in our lives when we don’t understand its benefits?! Like being pushed around in a pram, being sent for a nap in the afternoon, or having all our meals made for us, as a child we just don’t appreciate the good things until they’re too late. Instead, as with generations before us, we rebel against our parents, and ignore or waste the wonderful advice they give us.

I include the advice we give and receive about learning a language in this. It’s all very well spouting off about the many benefits for a child being raised bilingually, but sometimes it’s not as easy as we would hope. In the process of raising our children we want to find a good balance of independence and conformity, but often in the process we find that we have a son or daughter who doesn’t want to do exactly what we have asked.

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Book review #3: A book for bilingual children

a fish in foreign waters bookFor those of you who haven’t come across it yet, a new book is on the market which is specifically directed at bilingual and multilingual children. “A Fish in Foreign Waters”, written by Laura Caputo- Wickham and illustrated by Pamela Goodman is perfect for all young children who are learning a second language.

While written in English (with plans to translate it into other languages in the future), this book appeals to children of all (but especially bilingual or multilingual) backgrounds. It tells the story of Rosie Ray, whose family move to another part of the ocean. When they arrive Rosie has to learn a new language and make new friends- a daunting task for anyone, but especially for a young fish. The story describes her struggle and success, and reflects nicely the lives of many children who move to a new country or have to start afresh somehow.

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Helping children with reading difficulties

kids-reading-nook-6Reading is one of my big pleasures- at a young age I used to tuck myself into the top shelf of the hot cupboard at my parents’ house to get some quiet time with a book, or head into the fields behind our house to find a peaceful spot. Not everyone is so lucky though- many find reading a chore, or worse, they struggle with even short texts. Having just finished following a course on Dyslexia and Language Learning I wanted to write about it in layman’s terms, and look at the ways we can help children to learn to read. I’m not just confining myself to dyslexia though- many children simply don’t enjoy reading as they either didn’t have enough exposure when young, or weren’t taught how to read well.

Dyslexia can not be cured because it is not an illness or disease; instead we need to look at ways in which we can make the process of reading easier on the individual. If dyslexic students are taught with their needs being considered, and if they are equipped with the relevant strategies, they will learn how to overcome their difficulties. Girls somehow develop more easily successful strategies that help them study in their own way not only languages but other academic subjects too, while boys show more struggling in acquiring new materials, regardless of the subject.

Since dyslexia itself is of neurobiological origin connected to phonological awareness and working memory, its occurrence is not language dependent: it occurs in students of all language backgrounds. However, how much and what type of difficulties it causes CAN depend on the learners’ mother tongue or the language they are learning. Phonologically more or less transparent languages with the ‘say what you see, write what you hear’ system (like Finnish, German, Italian or Hungarian) are supposedly easier to master, while opaque languages like English and French, where one letter can have many different sounds, cause more difficulties for dyslexics. However, individual student’s experiences may differ since there are other factors (motivation to learn the language, relationship with the teacher, family background…etc.) that influence the success of learning any language (first or second).

Here are some tips which are easy to include in your reading routine, and which will help a troubled reader or dyslexic learner:

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Do bicycles have a gender?

mCnhW2KwC_uPIYC3mWLXt7wMy daughter is ready for her first bicycle. My son is ready for his first ‘laufrad’ (Does this have an English name? Wheel-less bike? Push bike? Google translated it as ‘impeller’??!!). Sadly, he is getting a hand-me-down, while she is getting a new one. I have a feeling this will be repeated in a few years, when he is also ready for a bicycle.

So, I went online, as we always do, to find out more about the perfect bike. The first site (and the second, and the third…) I visited had two pages: ‘boys bikes’ and ‘girls bikes’. No overlap; no mutual, unisex bikes… just two separate pages.

I can feel this blog becoming a bit of a rant. How is it that something as genderless as a bicycle has to be classified like this? It’s not even, as with adult bikes, that the cross bar is in a different place (unnecessarily in my opinion- unless you are still living in the Victorian age and wearing long, billowy skirts). It is solely colour. All the boys bikes are blue/ black/ orange/ red, and the girls bikes are pink/ purple/ more pink. Girls get pink Hello Kitty bikes and boys get blue Captain Sharkey. Girls get a pink rabbit design, and boys get a green crocodile. Why? WHY??

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