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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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Young Learners

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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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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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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Book review #2: Winners of children’s book awards

It’s hard to choose a new book for your children- especially with such a wonderful, wide range out there and recommendations coming at you thick and fast from all sources, reputable or not. Of course word-of-mouth suggestions are often the best, but it’s nice once in a while to find something new and feel comfortable that you have made a good choice for your child.

The Randolph Caldecott Medal annually recognizes the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. The Caldecott and Newbery Medals are the most prestigious American children’s book awards, and so, despite the fact that I am not American myself, I love to look and see who has won, read the excellent stories and admire the wonderful illustrations of not only the winners but also the other ‘Honor (sic.) Books’.

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Speaking vs. Communicating

How important is learning a language to you? It all depends on your country of origin- English speakers generally are less than enthusiastic about learning foreign languages as we know that we are lucky enough to be able to count on English to get by in most places. People coming from countries where the language is less wide-spread need to learn another language, and generally are very capable of speaking two or three languages. An international study a few years ago showed that children from nations such as Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania are more likely to be taught a number of foreign languages than their peers in the UK.

Some people are obsessed with learning a foreign tongue.  I know I am- living here in Vienna I daily have to come to terms with the fact that I don’t speak German well- or at least not to a level where I feel comfortable and can manage most social interaction. Obviously this is needs based; a situation which many people have and will never find themselves in.

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