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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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teaching tips

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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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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To app or not to app…

tabletKids and tablets.

There’s no point asking whether they should use them or not- it’s too late for that. Most kids these days from about age 5 know what a tablet is, and can navigate pretty well around the apps. They can show many of us oldies what to do when we get stuck, and can function pretty well- amazingly well to be honest. And currently tablets are being used in schools for children as young as 5, by teachers trained to maximise their potential.

Generally that’s all fine- research has shown that limited time on a tablet does no harm to a child; the opposite in fact. You only have to read about the charity Onebillion, or the project “One Laptop per Child” or “The School in the Cloud” to see that technology is being used in the classroom from a very early age, and with positive and successful outcomes. In the current classroom context, we can see how digital devices can be used to support the development of core skills like literacy and maths, and how digital apps can provide an engaging, stimulating and creative way of promoting children’s learning.

The key word in the above sentence is CAN. Apps can help learning and encourage all the good skills we want our kids to have. But we are all still a bit skeptical about what is out there, and with good reason. For the handful of good apps available there are a million bad ones- or at least not good ones… I wouldn’t say that they are all bad, so as a parent we should worry that the content our children are seeing on a tablet is appropriate. The problem is where to start?

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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):

Continue reading “Getting your toddler to speak… temptation and treats!”

Encouraging your children to speak

No matter whMother helping daughter with homeworkat language your kids are speaking, be it their mother tongue (or one of them) or a foreign language, sometimes conversation just doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Especially when you reach the tween years it seems, children change their desire to confide in parents, preferring to chat with friends or go to the internet for answers. But children at a much younger age can also respond well to encouragement, and by encouraging more conversation children learn new words and concepts, develop active listening skills, learn to problem solve and make connections, and most importantly, become independent learners.

How do we go about creating conversation? When I go to a restaurant with my family we are ‘that family’: the one which makes all the noise and usually has a ring of empty tables around us- the 5- metre exclusion zone for people who don’t want the loud neighbours. But despite the fact that “shh” is my most often- used word, I would prefer to be ‘that family’ than the one which sits in silence, with not even the parents engaging in conversation, or the couple who sit in silence (maybe companionable silence, but still silence) for the full length of the meal.

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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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