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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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motivation

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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Grandparents are great!

GrannyI flew back home to Vienna recently, after a week in the UK, sans famille. It was a lovely flying experience: I had a good wander round the airport shops without being nagged to buy this and that, I sat back in my seat and dozed a bit, I ate my meal at the same time as everyone else, without spills or whines (just wine!). Travelling without kids- what a luxury!

But when I looked across the aisle I saw a mum who had it even better than me. She was travelling with her son, yes, but also with her mother. Granny sat in the middle seat, mum in the aisle, and the 6-ish year old in the window seat. The whole way through the flight Granny looked after the son- she played with him, read to him, took him to the loo and helped him with his food. Mum did exactly the same as me: flew as if she was alone. Jealous much?!

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Is the Internet good or bad for our children?

child-using-computerThese days it seems that almost from birth, children are immersed in a digitally rich environment, from tablets to desktops and texting to social networks. Despite efforts to keep technology away from children, there is no way that any parent can stop it all from becoming part of a child’s life, or at least maybe at first, but not once they reach 5 or older. But if we step back a little bit, we can see that there are advantages to allowing some access to technology. Digital technologies have potential benefits in the areas of cognitive, social and physical development. They have huge appeal for children, and this can be harnessed to help children socialise, develop and learn. Kids who are old enough to swipe a screen can have access to the world.

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OP… OL… Oh God!?!

language-processing-mainHow far can OPOL go for most people, and how rigid should we be with it? Is there even a “right answer” to this question? Certainly there are a million viewpoints on it.  OPOL is the preferred choice for many bilingual families (as I wrote in my previous blog: Do I confuse my kids?), but it is not the only choice.

George Saunders wrote in his book “Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens” that the “one person, one language” approach “ensures that the children have regular exposure to, and have to make use of each language. This is particularly important for the minority language, which has little outside support.” This is a logical approach, but is not always possible.

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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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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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Dads need to read

readingdadWho is the reader in your family? The chances are it’s mum- reading bedtime stories to the kids night after night, becoming word perfect in the favourite book of the week- in our case Quentin Blake’s “Mrs. Armitage: Queen of the Road”. Why is that? In our family it’s often because bedtime happens before Dad makes it home from work (so he takes over at the weekend), but the reasons are varied for other families.

Before you have a go at me for making such a gender-biased assumption, research made by Booktrust, the UK’s leading literacy organization, found that only one out of eight UK fathers takes the lead with reading to his children. Dads might be great in other areas, like playing sports, fixing broken toys and general rough and tumbling, but 75% of dads admitted to a lack of confidence when it came to reading to their child.

Studies have shown that when fathers read to their children and share other care-giving responsibilities with mum, their children have better attachment, they have higher self-esteem, and show better social competence. The time fathers spend reading to their children does not just translate into literacy skills but also helps the child to have better impulse control and to show a greater ability to take initiative. In addition, if dad spends time with them at an early age, research has shown that they develop to become more empathetic. A fathers’ involvement in their child’s reading is proven to boost academic success and leads to improved social and emotional well-being.

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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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