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.

 

 

7 steps to teaching your kids a second language

In the world we live in speaking at least two languages is rapidly becoming a necessity. So, one either has the money to pay for tutors, or has the opportunity to live abroad or speak another language to pass on to the children. Many parents around hat world are catching up to the idea that one doesn’t have to be a native speaker of language to be able to teach it to their children, especially if one can afford a bilingual education.

Teaching your child a second language that you learnt yourself in a classroom as an adult or as a young adult is possible. As anything the extent to which your children will become fluent in that language depends on many different factors, like how much exposure they get in that language, if they have enough motivation, if there is a large enough community around you speaking that same language or how much opportunity there is to visit the country where they speak that language.

Here is a bit of advice for those of you who are thinking of teaching your children a second language:

1. Get them early. It is obvious that one can learn a language at any time, after all, many parents speak a foreign language they learnt as adults. However, it is also true that if you start speaking to your child when he’s still a baby, he will have the opportunity to absorb it at the same time as the local language. For him, hearing two languages at the same time will be normal, that will be his norm.

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2. Find a pattern of language use that fits your purposes. If both parents speak one language each, that is called OPOL (one parent one language). Although, not necessary to follow that pattern, it is useful in the sense that it provides maximum exposure time, 50-50. Of course, this could vary in different situations, for instance, if one parent is out working most of the day, and this would affect the balance of languages, or if the parent who speaks the second language also wants to speak his/her native language. In this case, one good solution would be to choose a suitable time of day or situation where this parent would speak the second language. For instance, deciding to speak the second language for two full days every week, and the rest the local language, or speaking it in certain situations, like a second language playgroup.

3. Build a support group around of people who speak that second language and have committed to speak it to their children at home. Sometimes there are already established playgroups that you can attend to enhance the language learning experience of your child, other times, finding a group is slightly harder, and you may want to consider starting your own group of parents by placing ads in local playgroups, free newspapers, etc.

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4. One of the obvious steps is looking for educational establishments that cater for bilingual children, like bilingual nurseries or primary schools. However, this may not be readily available in your area, or they may not be available in the language you require. In that case, do not despair, having a full time parent with the knowledge of a second language in his or her head, is a great advantage already, especially if you make sure you provide your child with enough input in the shape of books, cartoons, educational activities and materials, etc.

5. Talk, talk, talk and read, read, read. You have to talk, because, as anybody will tell you, you learn language by hearing it. The more you talk the more your baby will hear and will learn. The more you read the broader your vocabulary and structures in that language will become, and you will be able to speak more and better to your kid.

6. Stop worrying. Many people worry about passing on the wrong accent or the wrong meanings. This is not something I’d like to dismiss lightly, but on the other hand, you should consider the alternative to having your child speaking, let’s say, German with English accent and making mistakes sometimes, which would be a kids who would just speak English. The answer it’s obvious. Also, consider that having a teacher available almost 24/7, that means you, the parent, is much better that having a teacher available just 2 to 3 hours a week, even if this teacher is a native speaker, which in many schools they aren’t.

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7. Turn language learning into quality parent child time. Even if your child doesn’t achieve fluency, having him understand or even speak a bit of that second language virtually without effort, when you had to learn it in the classroom is already a great advantage. Also, consider all the hours of quality time you can spend with your child enjoying fun activities, or eating that typical food that you both love so much. That is priceless!

Last but not least, I hope you enjoy your language sharing adventure with your little ones, and please, let us know if  you have decided to start exposing your child to a second language.

4 ideas to help international families with childcare

One of the main issues that I have found as a mum living in a foreign country, away from friends and family back home, is that simple things like babysitting can become complicated experiments, or childcare like a juggling act. When you have been living in a place for most of your life, there are always trusted neighbours or family friends that are helpfully unemployed or retired, and have time to babysit or take the children off your hands for a bit of me time.

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1. One thing that has worked in the past for one of my friends was a babysitting circle. Granted, it takes time to get to know people you can trust with your children, however, most people who have their babies in the same area will be invited to anti-natal or post-natal courses, where you can meet other mums and future friends. This is how my friend, Linda, met the people who would go on to become her babysitting circle. They worked a system of vouchers, the more babysitting you did, the more vouchers you had, and then you could spend then getting your children babysat.

2. Keeping the tally can be difficult, and mistakes can be made. Nowadays, the babysitting circle has gone one step further. In my area, we have set up a babysitting circle on a website called MyNightOff. This is a website accessible from any computer, each participant has their on login details, receiving emails when a new babysitting request is placed, so they can go on the site and accept the request. The site administers the credits, everybody starts with the same number, and then one earns or spends credits babysitting or asking for baby-sitting.

 

3. Nanny-sharing is also a solution that many people use. If you can’t afford regular full-time nurseries, and grannies and granddads live too far away, nanny-sharing may be a good solution. Nannies tend to be more expensive per hour that childminders or nurseries, but they are more flexible, look after the kids in your own home, so there is no rush to get them to the childcare, and if you share the care with a neighbour, it can actually work cheaper. Besides a nanny can pick up your older kids from school and take them back home. For international families, it can also be helpful if they can find a nanny who speak their language to help strengthen the minority language at home.kids-785727-m

4. Swap day time sitting with trusted friends from playgroup or neighbours. Sometimes, other mums around may work from home, or be full-time mums, but needing a break or time free to run some errands.

Learning Spanish on a budget, a parent’s approach

lets-play-bingo-1-602195-mNowadays, most people realise the importance of knowing  how to speak a foreign language, and consequently they want their children to have this great gift as well. However, not everybody does speak a foreign language as an adult, are these monolinguals doomed, then, to have monolingual children? [Read more...]

Review: A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker 4th Edition

51+pw1vgunL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_With this new edition, the new classic Colin Baker’s Guide to Bilingualism presents us with answers to the most common questions that parents with bilingual children are faced with. At the same time it introduces new information adapted to the times like bilingualism in the digital age and incorporating the latest research in multilingualism, neonatal language experience, language mixing and the effect of siblings.

The structure of the book is easy to follow, the material is divided in sections that deal with the main aspects of the bilingual family like education, language development, problems, or reading and writing. Each section contains the most common questions that come up among bilingual families and the author’s answers.

All in all, I think Colin Baker’s A Parents’ and Teacher’s’ Guide to Bilingualism is a good basic manual to have for all of those parents to be who are pondering the pros and cons of bringing up their children bilingually. It answers most of the common questions about the subject, and dispels many of the myths.

Review: Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family by Xiao-lei Wang

51yc9AbzaTLRaising bilingual or multilingual children requires dedication and hard work. It also raises an important issue, what to do with Literacy.

It is likely that the children in a multilingual family will attend a school or some form of formal education in the country where they are living, where they will be taught to read and write. The teaching of the home language or heritage language as Xiao-lei Wang refers to it will fall almost exclusively on the parents, even if there is a supplementary school in the heritage language that the children must attend.

In most cases, the teaching and the development of Literacy in the heritage language or languages, the main instruction and assistance will come from the parents themselves. This is a daunting task for most people, especially if they haven’t had any experience in education before, but it is more so when the task takes place in a foreign country and possibly in one or two other languages.

Xiao-lei Wang’s book, Read and Write in the Multilingual Family, is a good manual to accompany you on your multilingual trip. It is informative, giving examples of real case scenarios, but its main strength, in my opinion, is that it is designed as a manual, even giving you tasks and opportunity to reflect on your practice and what you have been doing at the end of every chapter.

The book also includes three sections that deal with different age groups, 0-5 years, 6-11 years and 12 to 18 years. It gives lots of practical ideas for each age group, and it includes bibliographical references with each chapter, giving you the opportunity to learn more about a particular aspect of Literacy development.

It is not often that one finds a book so inspiring, and given that I intend to bring up my children not just multilingual but also multiliterate, I will certainly keep this book close to me throughout my children’s formative years.

Review: Salsa, Spanish resources for children

Learning a foreign language in the family is not an activity exclusive to families with one or two bilingual adults. People who don’t speak a language or who speak it to limited proficiency can also make language learning into a fun activity to do with their children. Nowadays we have many resources at our disposal and thanks to the world wide web you can literally take advantage of resources created on the other side of the world.  [Read more...]

6 easy steps to start your bilingual playgroup

When we found ourselves faced with the decision of wether to bring up our children in 3 languages for us the decision was easy – of course, yes! Now one of the main obstacles we had to overcome was the fact that we had one Spanish native speaker and one English native speaker, so, what were we going to do with French!

I speak fluent French, although not natively, and I haven’t lived in a French-speaking country for any considerable length of time. So, besides my French-speaking input, we felt that the girls would benefit from social interaction in French. So, building a local social network became one of the main priorities.

It varies from country to country, depending on how much parents work and how much childcare time the kids have, but in England the ‘playgroup culture’ is very popular. Playgroups in the UK are generally run by volunteers in church halls or community settings. They are big rooms with toys, where parents can chat and meet other parents and have a cup of tea or coffee while the children play. There is usually a nursery rhyme and story time session at the end.

Foreigners and people with special interests have quickly caught up to the idea of running a playgroup and have seen the advantages of doing so to expose their children to more language. In most British cities and large towns you will find at least one foreign language playgroup. However, it’s relatively simple to start your own playgroup if there isn´t one already. Here you will find some pointers:

1. The first concern when starting a new playgroup is financing. Many playgroups are run by volunteers at churches and the church takes responsibility for the running costs like electricity, water, coffee, tea, snacks, Xmas parties, etc. However, if you want to run a private playgroup, you will have to rent a room or find a public space that is suitable and free to use, like a public library.

When I started our French playgroup, Les Petites Grenouilles, they let me use the space in the children’s area in the Bristol Central Library for an hour on Saturday mornings. The location was ideal as it was in the centre of town and I didn’t have to pay any money, which was good as the French group consisted of one person at that moment, me. Later on, when we had a few people, we moved to cafés and play-cafés where they would let us use the space for free, but parents had a drink at the café. At the moment we are at that stage and the group is thriving. An older group I also belong to, which was started back in the 1980s by a group of Spanish mums – La Casita – rents a hall on a regular basis. However, they have had time in 30 years to build a regular base so there is always enough money to cover the rent of the hall.

Renting your own hall with space to store toys and books is the ideal any playgroup should aspire to. However, let’s walk before running – just start small and take it from there. There is no point in stressing about not having enough money to cover the rent, which the organiser would have to cover.

So, look for a nice family friendly space in your area and ask them if it´s okay to do a session. Generally, parents who are really invested in their children’s bilingualism would prefer having a small playgroup/meetup in a café than nothing at all. You can’t always please everybody, and many of the parents who would complain about having a playgroup in a café would not come to a playgroup in a hall either, in any case.

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La Casita is a playgroup for Spanish speaking people in Bristol, England. It started as a group of mums meeting in their sitting room and 30 years on the group is still alive and renting a hall every week, term-time.

2. Build your numbers little by little, and don’t expect a big turnout at the beginning. Although there are possibly many parents out there with your predicament, reaching them may be difficult initially. But don’t give up!

At the first meeting of Les Petites Grenouilles there was just me and another French lady. Now for each meeting we have at least five families and over 80 people on our mailing list. It has taken over three years to reach this point but if I had given up after the first few months when it was just me and maybe one or two other mums, then we would not have a thriving playgroup now with parents volunteering to write for our blog, our Twitter account, and organise events like the Easter Egg Hunt.

So, start small but keep to regular sessions. For instance, start with once a month, keep contact details of all attendees, especially email, and maintain a mailing list. Just print some black and white home-made flyers in your printer at home and leave them at other playgroups, libraries and areas where there may be people with your language. Use online ads (in the UK Gumtree is very popular and works well). Email local free magazines that cater for families, etc. But, do keep in touch through the mailing list, even if a family can’t come now, if you keep in touch they are likely to attend one of the sessions when they are free. Also, they will tell other parents about the sessions. Once you have a regular base you can increase your sessions to two a month, and so on. From one Saturday a month we increased to two a month, and just this month we have started weekly sessions on Friday mornings.

3. Don’t turn down help. Be open about accepting help and support from other parents. Quite often they will want to help and participate but they may be shy to ask – or they may think that as you are the “main organiser” and it was “your idea” and, so, you would´t want help. Of course, you want help, and you want other parents to participate, this is the only way for the group to become an organic entity that grows with its needs.

However don’t expect help to be forthcoming. You will probably find that it takes quite a few sessions to find those special people who really want to take part in the group and help. They will be the “regulars” who will come with rain, snow or thunder. Be patient, just build the playgroup and they will come!

4. Have at least one special event a year. Depending where you come from or what part of the world you’re living in, you will be celebrating different festivities. In our case, given our background and the country we are living in, England, our main event is the Xmas party. Even on the first year when you may not have many people on your mailing list, it is important to celebrate that special event. This will not only bring the regulars together and strengthen budding friendships, but you’re likely to attract interest from people who may not be able to come to regular meetings.

Our first Xmas party was quite big considering that our regulars weren’t that many. Lots of new parents attended and some of them have stayed and have turned into regulars.

Don’t go overboard with preparations, especially if the money is tight. Rent a special place, this time it is important that it is your space and not a café or a public space that you have to share. Shop around, find a nice church hall that can be rented out for events. Three hours should be enough, leaving half an hour for arrival and preparation, and half an hour at the end to pack up and clean.

5. Keep a structured but flexible approachAll people like structure to a certain extent, and especially this help in playgroups, where people will be able to remember the “activities” they have taken part in and if they enjoy them they will be happy to return and participate. However, the group is not there to teach children language – this is something parents should be doing at home. The group is to reinforce the language and the culture, as well as create bonds with other people who share the same language. This bond or relationship is not just for the children but also for the parents. So, make sure there is plenty of time for parents to socialise and chat, and that children are allowed enough time for child-led play.

A structure that is common for may playgroups and has worked for us is:

- Arrival, greetings, people get drink/coffee, settle down, chat.
- Introduction song (pick up a song that you repeat each session to help people remember names). We sing:

Screenshot 2014-04-13 21.55.49I have a surname, a name

I have a surname, a name,
Two eyes,
A nose,
A chin,
Quickly, tell me your name,
To continue the song!

Your name is…
Hello…

- We continue with some nursery rhymes.
- Followed by an easy craft. Here children are free to join or play. Parents will help their children or talk to other parents.
- We end the session with a couple of stories.

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This is from our last session.

6. Money matters. Money, as we all know, doesn’t bring happiness but certainly helps to buy stuff to organise a playgroup. If you start small, there is no need to start talking money at the beginning. Start in a café or a free meeting area, once you have enough people to start preparing more structured-organised activities, you can ask for a small fee that you can save to pay for rent and materials for your Xmas party. The aim is not to make money from the group, but to have some money saved so you don’t have to stress about covering costs for special events.

For the first couple of events I organised for Les Petites Grenouilles I had to cover the costs up front. This is not an ideal situation and a bit stressful. So, to avoid it, we set a fee per session, as they do in all playgroups. Now, we can cover the costs of hall rental and materials upfront and if there is any money left save it for the next event, or any materials we need to buy.

It would be great to hear from any of you who is thinking of setting up a playgroup, or who has done so already successfully. Please, share with us your success stories, comment on the post, or email as on:

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