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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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word association

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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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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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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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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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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Language learning- through My Little Pony?

my_little_pony_mcdonalds_2012_happy_meal_toys_pinkie_pie-1024x682Well, I bet you never thought that My Little Pony could be a language tool, did you?! It’s amazing what gets children talking, and really, anything and everything can help… and we need to take advantage.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I can help my daughter with her German, especially since last month I went to an educational evening about Primary schools, and realised that in order for my children to get into Bilingual School they basically have to be able to do what is says over the door- be bilingual! My daughter’s primary language is English, and although we live here in Austria, many of her good friends speak English too. Blame me- I tend to hang out with English- speaking parents, due to my lack of German skills- and it’s rubbed off. Am I limiting her future educational options by doing this?

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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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