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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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multilingual

When Christmas isn’t just the 25th

father-christmas-saint-02We’re at that time of year again- when you can’t enter a shop without being assaulted by festive music, the waft of cinnamon-infused everything, and hungry shoppers desperate for that last-minute bargain. Ahh, Christmas. How I have missed you.

Can I still call this time of year Christmas though? With friends from all over the world who celebrate different things from me I don’t want to insult anyone. I have even started saying ‘Happy Holidays!’ to my friends and students, complete with an American accent and lop-sided grin to go with it, as it feels so far removed from what I was brought up with and actually feel as the right expression for this season. If you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Three Kings’ Day, you have a right to have it recognised. Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, or happy holidays are all pleasantries. There’s nothing remotely hostile in those words. Sure, they may not be the words that some would choose to receive, but they’re far from insults.

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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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The ‘Mother Tongue’ of multilingual children

mother tongueWhat do you consider to be the mother tongue of your multilingual child? Would you say it’s literally the ‘tongue’ of the mother (even if that is the minority language) or all of the languages spoken by your child? The language where they were born? Or even the school language??

To be honest- who cares? What difference does it make to our children? Well, often schools and states do care… children have to indicate what their first language is for the school records, and many health care providers etc. ask for the mother tongue too. There are other form- filling situations  where you are only allowed to put in one language… wouldn’t it be nice if we could just write “bilingual”, and leave it at that!

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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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Tips for teaching children a second (or third… or fourth) language

Bilingual_Kids_800x600Despite the fact that, being British, I shouldn’t be able to speak more than just English (and even that not very well- according to some!), I am a strong believer in multiple language learning. We all know that kids absorb languages quickly (see my previous post: What is the best age to start learning a second language?) and seemingly more easily than adults, so logically we should start at an early age. As parents it’s our responsibility to help and nurture the innate ability, but it doesn’t always come naturally to us, so here is my baker’s dozen of tips for teaching children a second language.

NB. While I write this I think about my forays into language learning, and whether it’s appropriate for a non- native speaker to teach a language (non- professionally- I have many friends who teach a foreign language, but they have training and experience, and a certain level of language knowledge which I don’t). I have often questioned the idea, as I would myself hate to teach my kids bad grammar or pronunciation. But, within my limits I am happy speaking a smattering of German, French or Spanish with my two. I believe it opens their ears and makes them more receptive, and hopefully, as in my case when I was a child, encourages them to want to learn more. (But more about this later… I think this topic deserves it’s own post.)

1. Learning should be fun. The more fun it is to learn a language, the more a child will want to stay with it. Learning while playing is the best way to learn because it creates emotional attachments, and emotion is the door to learning. Even if it’s only saying the words of the game you’re playing in both your mother tongue and the second language, these words will be absorbed and repeated at a later date.

2. Learn by doing. Play at shop keeping, make a snack, or take a walk. While you are interacting with your children during these activities, speak a second or third language. As above, keep it fun!

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What is the best age to start a second language?

toddlers2My kids, aged 1 and 3, currently go to a bilingual Kindergarten in Vienna. They speak (well, the 1-year old not so much) both German and English at Kindy, and exclusively English at home. And it works! Every day my daughter surprises me with a new word in German, or part of a song that she has picked up from the other kids… yesterday it was something about St. Nikolaus with her Dutch friend and an Austrian child as they sat on a swing in the park. It’s amazing how absorbent she is- a little language sponge soaking up the verbal spills.

We are surrounded here with children in the same situation: bilingual and multilingual toddlers, who are happy and confident speaking to one parent in one language, the other in another, and yet a third at Kindy. Indeed, it has become the norm, with mixed nationality marriages requiring the offspring to grow up with two cultures and languages. So why is there still a debate about when a second language should be introduced. The only answer should be: RIGHT NOW!!

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