Introducing language at home with a granny-aupair

Nowadays most people have heard at one point or other the term “aupair“. Originally from the French, meaning “equal to”, it defines a foreign worker who in exchange of board, a small salary and the chance to immerse themselves in the local language offers her or his services looking after the children and doing domestic tasks. [Read more...]

Teaching to read and write in English

If you are an English speaker living abroad, in a non-English speaking country, you may well have to be the one to teach your children how to read and write in English. Don’t panic! It´s not as difficult as they would have us believe. You don´t have to be living abroad either, maybe you want to teach your little one at home for other reasons. First Reader Schlafly [Read more...]

Learning in a British school and the foreign perspective

bilingual brain

Lifelong bilingualism is good for your brain says new research.

It is quite normal for everybody, all over the world, to complain about their national school system, it’s either useless, teachers are inept, there is too much homework, or too little, not enough practical activities or too many, and the list goes on. It seems that there is no one single system that we can call “perfect”. School by its own definition will always be imperfect, given that every single individual is very different, and with 25 to 30 kids in a classroom, you can imagine that it’s virtually impossible to really adapt the learning to every single child. It is also true that a lot of what teachers and staff do in schools has nothing to do with education or learning, but has more to do with the necessity of controlling the crowd, setting boundaries and rules, so they don’t end up with 25 kids running riot around the classroom or 500 hundred in the canteen!

I think most parents accept that to an extent, and we also draw from our own experience in school. However, it is quite shocking the difference of expectations and opinions that one can draw from different cultures with regards to education and schools. In Britain especially the expectations of foreign born parents and British born parents can be quite different. Foreign born parents remember their school years through the textbooks, homework and tests, they remember getting their textbooks at the beginning of the year, caring for them, and paying an ocasional fine when they failed to return the book, or they damaged it. They expect the same for their children, to have a book, a basic tool, that they can use at home. They would like to be able to sit with their child, look through his workbooks, his annotations, the teacher’s comments and support their child, do the homework together, revise the last lesson, have a look at the index to see what their child is going to learn that year. Of course, that is not possible currently in the British system, textbooks are not used, and although parents are constantly asked to support their child in school, there is virtually no homework (compared to what we used to get in the old country). Foreign parents are at a loss, “there is no textbook? No workbook?” – “what am I supposed to teach him at home?” British parents, on the other hand, are happily unaware of the existence of school systems where people can easily, actually at a glance by reading the index, know what it is that their child is going to learn that year, without having to get constant email updates from the school. It doesn’t seem to worry them as much as foreign parents the fact that they can’t sit with their children to do homework or revise their workbook, because it’s all in school. Homework is done on worksheets or photocopies, and that’s fine, there is no need to read from the textbook or summarise it. They sigh with relief when foreign parents tell them about the piles of homework the children do in other countries.

 

What is the right answer? Well, a bit of both, I suppose, not piles of homework, but more than they get, and textbooks, please. In a way for foreign families, bilingual families, it is very important to actually have a textbook or a manual for each subject or topic. Isn’t that a bit prescriptive? – Some may ask. Well, yes and no. If you are a good teacher, you can still plan our lessons properly, having a textbook only means that your students, especially your foreign students, can go home and read more, revise what they have done in class. For foreign students, EAL students (English as an Additional Language) as they’re known in the UK, it’s actually a good tool to have. Given that they are new to the language, listening to the stuff in class doesn’t mean it’s going to stick, unless you have 100% recall ability… which I haven’t yet met anybody who does! To a certain extent we all need to re-read things a few times before we are able to recall it, but for foreign students it’s also about language acquisition and learning new terms that are specific to academic subjects.

unschooling?

Is unschooling the ultimate form of natural education or an unrealistic fad?

One of the main issues that schools face these days are “false native speakers”, as I call them. That is children who were either born in the country to foreign parents, or who came into the country when they were very young. These students pass for native speakers, they speak with perfect accents, they have mastered the young adult’s language and turn of phrases, however, they speak a different language at home, and they only time they use “academic” or “school language” is in lessons, with teachers. Most of the time these students go through the system unnoticed, apparently doing well, especially since the UK educational system lacks any examination system that means students need to achieve a certain level before they move on, they just simply trundle along happily. Happily, that is until they get to the dreaded GCSEs, the first official examinations taken in England and Wales, at 14 and 15. There is when problems start popping up, your regular student suddenly realises that he lacks the body of linguistic knowledge necessary to understand and write at the appropriate academic level. This is the plague of the GCSE teacher and his “false native” speakers. Is there an easy solution? Well, yes and no. Nick Gibb, the current Minister of State at the Department for Education, supported the report drawn by Tim Oatesone of the world’s foremost experts on the school curriculum, Why Textbooks Count. Tim Oates emphasised the need for curriculum coherence and the return of quality textbooks to British schools. I think most foreign born parents will read the paper and agree with most of it, or at least think it’s actually a common sense idea. Like most of reports written for the government, we could have said the same thing if asked, without the expense incurred! However, it’s not surprising either that most of the news articles about this paper are riddled with criticism and derisive comments from “well meaning” posters, given the irrational fear most locals have towards textbooks.

Textbooks, in my opinion, good quality textbooks used adequately, will solve a lot of the problems of the school system, to start with, it would give bilingual students a good chance to become acquainted with the specific language used for different academic subjects, as well as in different contexts. Instead of having to draw it from different sources, bad quality photocopies, and notes copied from PowerPoint presentations, often riddled with spelling mistakes, they would have a basic tool that they could use to build on. They would also be useful for native speakers and their parents, who rather than “guess” what the content of the subject is, given that now the schools’ tendency is to keep all work and books in school, could then read the book, pick any topic they feel unsure of or they want to learn more about and do some research. However, I can see one issue, well, two issues really, firstly is the recalcitrant attitude many parents and teachers have developed towards textbooks, a total irrational fear towards something that has for so long held the knowledge of humanity. The second issue is money, of course, in other countries September can be a very difficult month financially, as one has to cough up the money for the textbooks, in other areas the schools simply provide the books on loan for a year, and if you break it you pay for it. In Britain, the tendency has been for schools to provide all learning materials, so parents would resist the idea of having to pay for anything, and although apparently there is money for expensive interactive whiteboards and projectors, that are used mainly, solely, to project PowerPoints and educational video clips, there is no money for actual textbooks.

What are your views on the topic? Are you for or against textbooks? Do you love or do you hate the current education system in your country?

5 activities to support foreign or second language acquisition

The secret of learning a language is that there is no “secret”, basically a language is a tool for communication, and the best way to learn it and practice it is communicating. However, this can be difficult on a day to day basis, especially if both parents and children are busy with work, school, after school clubs and their social lives. So, this is when we really need our imagination and crafty hands to come up with interesting and fun activities that don’t look too much like “school” work.

Craft with bilingual children

1. Stop-motion and modelling clay day: I got this idea one day at my local library. A couple of youngsters working in a local association had put up an activity for the arts week. Basically they were using a load of modelling clay and crafty bits so children could make their own monsters. Later they would set up the characters in front of a camera, with a background and record a stop-motion movie. I did this activity with my French group and everybody loved it, the children got engrossed in creating little monsters and the parents helped them later on with a short movie. All the time everybody was speaking in French, and children heard and learnt new words, while at the same time meeting new and old friends and having a great time. We only did a very, very short movie, but the experience was very interesting especially as all the kids were under 5. You can check our movie out here.

You only need some modelling clay, crafty bits like goggly eyes, a bit of cardboard, pipe cleaners, or even short spaghetti (that I’ve just learnt can be used to make hedgehogs sticking them in a bit of modelling clay). For the software, we used an iPad and downloaded a very cheap app, it was only 5.99. With it you could record the movie and even record voice.

The feedback was very positive, given that everybody had fun, they felt they were doing something meaningful, and on top of that we covered the main aim of our group, getting the children immersed in the French language!

 

2. Music and rhythm: This is an activity I learnt from a reception class in a British school. In the UK kids start reception when they are 4 years old, so you would have 4 and 5 year olds in the same class.

The idea is getting them sitting and listening while doing something with their hands and feet, active learning. So, create a rhythm, ask them to clap their hands, then clap faster, then slower, then ask to skip one, so for instance first kids claps fast, next kid slow, next kid fast, and so on. You can repeat this with tapping feet, or any other movement or action you can think of. The idea is creating something like a rhythm and sequence. You can add musician instruments in the mix.

This way you will use language that the children will think it’s meaningful, as when you say “clap your hands” they will do this, so they know there is immediate reward, to get it right, join in and have fun. It is a nice way also to learn parts of the body and names of actions. You can adapt it to your own language. For instance, if there is a difference in how you use a word when it’s just one and when there are two, you can use this difference, “do this with one hand, now do these with two hands”, and so on.

3. Show and tell: In some groups this may work very well, if they kids are already speaking your home language. Also, shy children may be encouraged to speak, or even in they don’t this time, they may get the idea and have a go the next time. Ask children to bring something to the meeting, for instance their favourite toy, or something that they really like. They have to show it to the others, talk about it and answer questions.

4. Christmas card recycling: You can do this activity either after Christmas, or ask people to give you their old Christmas cards and keep them for the following year and do the activity before Christmas. Get the kids to bring their old Christmas cards, cut them up and you can get them to do a collage. Individual collages are a good idea, so they have something to show at home, or you can do a group one and show it as an example of collaboration.

Use the activity to encourage the use of vocabulary, by saying out loud what people are doing and what they have to do, for instance, “now we are cutting the cards”, “Peter is gluing the card”, “we have many different things, a Christmas tree, a flower, etc.”

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5. Bookmark making activity: Laminators are simple but great inventions. With a few sheets of craft card in different colours, a few pictures cut out from magazines, dry flowers and any other bits and pieces people like, you can create amazing bookmarks. Just get the kids to glue their items on a bit of card that you have previously cut in the shape of a bookmark. Get a few together, place them in a laminating pouch, laminate and voilà, your bookmarks. Now you just have to cut them individually and punch a hole with a hole punch. Threat a bit of wool or ribbon through the hole, tie it up and that’s it.

Again as in the activity above, you can use the crafty time to encourage children and parents to talk in the language and use the vocabulary related to that activity. You can decide on a topic, so it could be animals, so children could practice that vocabulary, or it could be something else, you decide!

 

These are just a few basic ideas, it is by no means a comprehensive list of things that you can do to boost your children’s language acquisition. But what it is, however, is an example of how “normal” activities, those that you would do at any playgroup or even in a play date with friends, can be converted and adapted to language acquisition, even language learning in the foreign language classroom.

 

Do you have any other ideas that you would like to share with us?

 

 

 

 

 

Foreign or second language learning through craft

Craft with bilingual childrenThe secret of learning a language is that there is no “secret”, basically a language is a tool for communication, and the best way to learn it and practice it is communicating. However, this can be difficult on a day to day basis, especially if both parents and children are busy with work, school, after school clubs and their social lives. So, this is when we really need our imagination and crafty hands to come up with interesting and fun activities that don’t look too much like “school” work. [Read more...]

Mum, what is sweet in Chinese? 5 Steps to ease your child into a foreign language

Chinese writingWell, I don’t know, sweety, but we can find out… I never thought that it would really get to that point where they actually “think by themselves” and start showing interest in other languages. Of course, it was going to happen, but when you hold your little bundle of joy for the first time, be it in hospital or at home, you just think about protecting it and what you can give it, you don’t think about what they may ask in the future! I don’t really push other languages and I don’t really intend to send them to formal language lessons, unless they want to go, of course. At the moment, making sure we keep the balance with three languages is hard work enough. Also, personally, I don’t believe that acquiring two or three languages when you are a child gives you a wand that magically makes you learn another language effortlessly when you wave it around. [Read more...]

Children’s theatre in Spanish

Stories and storytelling are very important for children. Of course, they love cartoons, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love theatre or plain story telling better when presented to it. If you have the chance to travel abroad to the country where the language your kids are learning is spoken, find out about local venues for children’s theatre. It’s a great experience.

Screenshot 2014-08-18 09.10.03In Madrid I’ve just discovered a little venue in the centre, Lavapies, called “La Escalera de Jacob“, where they put up small plays for children as well as adults. They have two small stages, and a café upstairs. It’s great if you want to take your child to see a play, but your friend or partner doesn’t feel like going, or he needs to stay upstairs with the baby, as they can stay cosy in the bar upstairs, or sitting outside on the “terraza” during summer.

[Read more...]

Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, the Chinese counterpart of Dora de Explorer

ni-hao-kai-lan-characters-mainImageNi Hao in Mandarin Chinese means hello. I’ve known this ever since I started working for a Taiwanese company many years ago. However, in all my language obsessed mothering years, I’ve never even attempted to teach my children any Chinese, not even as a dinner party joke (look at my cute children, they can dance and say “hello” in Chinese!). But, one day, my eldest daughter (4) looked at me with that mischievous face she has when she’s doing something clever or a bit naughty, and smiling said to me “Ni Hao”. At first, me being me, thought, at my age, my hearing was failing me, and she probably was saying something different that sounded like “hello” in Chinese. [Read more...]

What if your child refuses to speak the minority language?

Bilingualism does not follow a straightforward path and it’s not an exact science. There are many different variables that can influence bilingual families and bilingual individuals. Many successful bilingual parents don’t really stop to consider ‘what ifs…?’

What if your kid suddenly turned around and said that he doesn’t want to speak your language? What would you do? Would you feel disappointed, shame, a feeling of failure? This is a very normal, a fresh challenge and a new side of bilingualism, which is totally normal, and quite common for many bilingual families.

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As we mature and gain experience our view of the world changes. Once you begin raising a bilingual child, you will change too. When I was a student I thought bilingual children always spoke perfectly in two languages, with spotless vocabulary and genuine accent. Nothing could be further from the truth. With time and experience, I have realised that individual children are different, their circumstances are different, and I have seen many children with good command of two languages but with “thick” foreign accents in their minority language. So don´t assume a bilingual child will necessarily speak with a flawless accent.

Likewise, I no longer assume that bilingual children will all switch on and off the minority language when you want… they’re not robots after all. I feel lucky that my 4 year old has taken to speaking Spanish like a duck to water, and although she’s not unique, she’s not representative of all bilingual kids either. I know a few bilingual kids who speak their minority language, albeit using a restrictive code, limited vocabulary, mixed grammar, and strong accents, All of these are normal. It really depends on the child and the circumstances.

When the terrible 2's arrive kids love to say 'no' to Mum and Dad...

When the terrible 2′s arrive kids love to say ‘no’ to Mum and Dad…

There are children who simply refuse to speak the minority language. The reasons may be very different. They are also on the normal spectrum, there is nothing strange or weird about it, there is not reason to feel guilty either, you just need to take it a step at a time.

If you’re reading this, I imagine you’re interested in raising your children bilingually and overcoming these challenges. So, let’s look at a few tips and ideas that may help your child.

1. First of all, don’t give up. I know quite a few frustrated adults who complained about their parents listening to them when they were young and asked them to stop talking to them in “that foreign language”. They now deeply regret not being able to communicate with their families in “that language”. However, I haven’t met yet any individual that complains about being able to speak two languages.

Think about what can be affecting your child:

2. Is the environment hostile to your language and the national identity you represent? Do you think your child may be picking up on that hostility and he just wants to fit in?

Be positive and think about the things that you could do to help him feel more at ease with the language. Don’t think about what you or he can’t do, but what is possible: find other families with the same language, celebrate fun festivals, read interesting story books with them, watch TV programmes he may like, use hobbies to channel the language, etc.

3. Is she finding school difficult? Does she have problems with Literacy in school? Sometimes well meaning but misinformed professionals think that the reason a child has problems with school subjects is because the influence the second language is having. In that case, you can address his problems in school, and help her with it. Developing Literacy and language in the home language can also help him with his first language.

4. Is he just going through a phase like the terrible 2s? It may be that he wants to assert his identity making his own decisions, and saying no to something that it´s obviously important to you may be one way of doing it… just keep using the language! Toddlers and young children love saying ‘no’ to everything.

5. Ultimately, the reasons why a child may not want to speak the minority language are as many as children there are in the world. So, just be patient and try to find out if there is a reason, so you can deal with it.

Remember, that it´s really never too late to learn a foreign language, but it´s also true that it´s easier when one is younger. So, keep at it!

The importance of early years bilingualism

This is an issue at the top of the to-do lists of many parents, along with music, sport, school and many other activities that are thought important for children nowadays. The British Council in Madrid, an education centre established to bring English education to those Britons living abroad as well as many local families who want their children to grow up bilingual, will host the II Jornada de Bilingüismo en Edades Tempranas (the Second Conference of Early Years Bilingualism). Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist with a specialization in cognitive and language development in children, will speak at the conference about the benefits of bilingualism. 

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Ellen believes that the fact that children can absorb and assimilate information very easily means that the early years are the ideal time to learn another language. She also supports the theory that learning a second language has great cognitive advantages that will help the brain stay healthy and prevent early degeneration. She also highlights other, more mundane, advantages like helping people living in a global world and giving them those extra tools for survival in our modern economy.

In a previous conference held by the Spanish branch of the British Council, a bilingual educator, Alexander Sokol gave some pointers to parents who wanted to bring up their children bilingually. Some of them are things that I have already mentioned in Bilingual Parenting as being important for the relation between bilingual parents and children, like making sure that you are not just pointing at things and saying the name, just teaching vocabulary, but speaking in simple sentences in context. Even if you have just started speaking to your child in the second language, using it in a meaningful context will make things much easier.

Sokol also believes that all approaches are okay if they work for your family. He suggests that parents shouldn’t worry so much about “teaching” their children, because he thinks that their function is not so much academic as it is educational in a playful way. Any activities and language acquired through the parents can then be reinforced if necessary at school or with private tutors.

He points out that before undertaking any “language” activities with your children, parents should think about their reasons for wanting their children to learn that language, living in the country, having family abroad, or they just want them to speak a foreign language. There are other variables to take into account like age of the children, previous knowledge, resources available, etc.

Sokol has suggested some ground rules that may help us plan our strategy:

1. Start with sentences rather than single words.
2. Translate without translating (explaining in simpler language, things they may know, use body language to explain concepts)
3. Be patient and don’t expect too much (remember the silent period)
4. Subtle corrections.
5. Take advantage of those moments when they are doing their favourite activities.
6. Give them time to get ready to speak (silent period)
7. The best resources are their environment and their games.

Alexander Sokol is bilingual, from Riga, he learnt to speak Russian and Lithuanian at the same time, as most people in the city. He also learnt English and speaks to his children in English.

These two people are, in my opinion, great examples of people who support bilingualism in the early years, and like Alexander Sokol, there are more and more  people educating their children in a language that is not their native language at home. Teachers and tutors can support the work done by the parents at home, but at the end of the day, the parents are the people who spend more time with the children and there lies the key to success, the amount of time and the quality of activities in the language we want them to learn.