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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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learning new languages

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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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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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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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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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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Do I confuse my kids?

Bilingual_kidMy son is only 1  1/2, but already has a thousand nicknames. It seems to run in our family, the nickname thing. I have been Gorg all my life, and my sister is Monster (you have to know her to understand!). But how does Sausage/ Bumble/  Fattypuff/ Sassafras/ Saskie know his REAL name? He does though- somehow he manages it- picking the right word from plenty of options.

Kids thrive on consistency, and are often better behaved when they have a good routine to follow. By that count, the language that we teach and model for them should follow the same consistent path, and by that I mean hearing one language spoken to them, so that they can learn to speak it properly themselves. However, this is fraught with difficulties and obstacles, when you consider that many families these days have two home languages (as with many of my friends here in Vienna who have an Austrian parent and an English-speaking parent), or if not that then two accents/ dialects for the same language (as with me and my husband).

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Making friends… from an early age

stop_your_kids_fighting_5_18v3jps-18v3jqb1I sit and watch my two children interacting with other children, at the park, at Kindy, on play-dates. While the 1-year old is still into his own things, watching the others from time to time but not really interacting, my 3-year old seems to have some good friends, and talks about them a lot- when is X coming to my house? Is Y going to be at the park? It’s breathtaking to think that while they are still so little kids can learn to forge meaningful relationships, even when they are not able to communicate fully or express themselves always as easily as they would like.

Can toddlers really make friends? Surely, they are too young (or at least so busy defending their own toys) that they haven’t the time or energy to make friends?From the age of three or four, friendships can begin to take on real meaning for children – they begin to really connect and empathise with others.

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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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