The active, communicative toddler: wa-was and doggies

Over the last few months our daughter has come along wonderfully, she is outgoing and communicative. I know that most of you, bilingual parents, will be fed up with hearing the same song “don’t worry, your child will be a late talker, because s/he is bilingual, but it’s normal.” Well, guess what, of all the bilingual families I’ve met in the last two years through my daughter’s playgroups and people I knew before, I’ve only really met two children who were “late talkers”. It is debatable if these children were late talkers because they were bilingual, or just because they would have been late talkers anyway. So far, it is difficult to know, as for a proper research you would need twins or maybe a time machine so you could analyse one kid as a monolingual speaker and then go back in time and make the same kid bilingual… It is such a complicated issue, because there are so many factors that would affect a child’s development, like development in pregnancy, diet, illnesses and environment among others. So, sometimes I am really surprised at the ability of people to affirm something so far fetched as “your kid will talk late because he´s bilingual” when they actually don’t really have a clue of what they’re talking about… it is like Chinese whispers, like those damned Chinese whispers apparently based on psychological research that caused that many kids born in the 70s and 80s lost out on their family heritage because well-meaning family and friends decided that learning two languages would be detrimental to their development. [Read more...]

A bilingual baby a few months on…

Baby is walking and talking now, well talking… she says some words. After all these months of hectic work, I have finally conjured some strength and time! to sit down and write you all some lines.
The first few months aren’t easy, I am not talking of the string of nappies, sleepless nights and all the work that goes into the life of a little one, but about the self-consciousness that goes with speaking a foreign language by yourself to a tiny person that doesn’t really seem to respond much. It may sound strange and even banal, but I still haven’t met a foreign dad or mum who doesn’t feel a bit of a “fool” at the beginning talking this language that in some cases, for years, you have only used on the phone, over Skype or on holidays to visit family. Once I even met a French/Portuguese mum who confessed to have given up totally talking to her kids in Portuguese for that very reason, and this was a person who had grown up bilingual in a foreign country. So, maybe this is not such a trivial issue!

Spanish Toddler

Toddling through a multilingual environment.

The idea of choosing this topic as the first one for the comeback, after months of keyboard silence is to encourage other parents in the same situation, and convey the message, that yes, it’s hard, but it’s okay, everybody feels like this. After all, there were times when people believed that learning and things that were worthwhile were supposed to be “hard”. But that’s another story.
The first months for me were hard in the sense that I felt very self-conscious talking in this language, Spanish, that I only rarely spoke in England and mostly I spoke to my family and friends back home on the phone. The Spanish community in England is very different from that of the USA. In the USA I have the impression that there are whole clusters of Speaking communities, where extended families keep in touch and celebrate the traditional festivals of their country of origin. In the UK the situation is quite the opposite, Spanish speakers tend to immigrate individually, usually to study for a few years and then they may stay out of choice or because they’ve met somebody or they found a job that would be impossible back home. Although there are some exceptions, as a general rule most Spanish speakers live in mixed couples, with the partner being an English speaker or sometimes from a different country, so English will always indefectively be the language of power. It is not rare to see children from mixed couples understand perfectly well what is said to them in Spanish but answer back in English and refuse to speak Spanish.
This should be used to illustrate the point that no matter how stupid you feel talking in your language in front of other English speakers, even if you are in a group and nobody speaks Spanish, you should really persevere. After all, when I am walking down the street and I hear a Polish parent speaking to her little one in Polish I feel that situation as totally normal. My Russian friend speaks to her daughter in Russian in front of anybody and it feels right. People will think it’s great and wonderful that your little kid can speak this other language. So, why do we feel stupid?
Anyway, it’s all a matter of training, keep at it and it will become second nature. Just concentrate in your family, your target, and ignore what anybody else may think.
Just to finish off today, I will give you some updates on how Little One is doing. She almost 18 months old and of course she has started saying some single words. At this point, I’d like to add that apparently bilingual kids tend to reach linguistic milestones at the same time as their monolingual peers, and there is not any scientific study that proofs that they don’t or that they develop speech later. Anyway, she is saying single words as any little boy or girl her age would. The interesting thing is that although she understands both English and Spanish, she chooses to say the shorter and easier word, which in our case tends to be English, compare: zapato-shoe, pelota-ball… however, she would say nene/nena instead of child/kid, or “pipi” Spanish baby talk for “pájaro – bird”.
We have also been working with French, but not as much. She seems to understand and love her favourite cartoon “Didou” a small rabbit that teaches kids to draw, and even one day out of the blue, without prompt or ever having been pushed to say French words she said “bonjour, mami”.
I will try to post regularly and keep you updated!

Learning a Language with Professor Toto

Children have a knack for learning languages. This comes mainly from their not questioning what bit of information you are giving them, not like adults. “Mary, open the door” – Mary then opens the door. That is it. You do not need to explain why you put the words in the order you do, or why you do not say “you open the door” instead of “open the door”. This is why with small children we do not teach them language, but expose them to it.
There are many ways and opportunities in our day to day life to do this. However sometimes, it is useful to have some materials or courses that are already prepared, giving you ideas and helping you to introduce language in a meaningful way.
In this post, I am going to review a series called Professor Toto. It has been developed in the US and it is sold directly through their website “www.professortoto.com”, from Amazon.com and it can also be found on Ebay.co.uk Professor Toto is a language series that offers French, German, Chinese, Spanish and Italian.
The idea behind Professor Toto is to expose the child to language as it is spoken but with topics that appeal to children and that are likely to interest them.

Professor Toto teaches you French, Spanish, Chinese, Italian and German


This is how the website describes Professor Toto “Throughout this interactive experience, your child gets to meet Professor Toto’s friends: Sophia, an adorable little girl and Professor Toto’s exemplary student and Eric; an amusing boy who introduces his entire family and chats about his day.”
I think Professor Toto is a good tool to help you introduce a language to your children. It will be very useful for home educators or parents in general who wish to start their children learning a new language early. The DVDs and materials are interactive, they encourage the child to use language in the right context and they will also hear native speakers’ pronunciation. If you are teaching your child a language that you are not fluent in, you can use Professor Toto to expose your child to the right pronunciation and you can use it as a revision for yourself. It also gives you the opportunity to spend some time with your child, doing an interesting activity together.

Although very useful for non fluent speaking parents, Professor Toto can be used for native parents as well. It may help you to reinforce concepts that may get lost in the culture of the country you child is growing in. Some native speaking parents find it difficult to use their language for certain aspect of their life, it can be because you are busy when going shopping and it is quicker to use the language from the country you are living in, maybe you share that activity with your partner who does not speak your language, etc. There are many situation where the language of the country you are living in tends to get the upper hand. Using DVDs and resources developed for foreign language learning and may also be a good way to increase the exposure of your children to your language.

All in all, this looks like a nice resource to try. The idea behind it is learning while enjoying yourself, and the company that sells Professor Toto asks parents not to turn Professor Toto into a chore. I totally agree with them. Learning a foreign language should not be one more activity to get through in the daily routine of an already overscheduled kid. It should be a moment for parent and child to enjoy something together and share a passion. The same way you may sit down and listen to your favorite songs in the hope that your child will develop a taste for music. If you have a passion for language, then turn that passion into a way of building a relationship with your child. You do not have to be a native speaker to have a passion for language, the same way that you do not have to be Beethoven to teach your child to play the guitar.

Baby on Skype

Yesterday we had our first session on Skype with granny’s new computer. It’s actually not HER computer, but her neighbour’s computer. You see, when there is a baby involved people are prepared to go the extra mile!

Anyway, our first session went well. Cameras worked, voice worked, internet worked. It was only about five minutes on Skype, but granny sure enjoyed seeing her little new grandchild life on a screen.

At the moment M doesn’t pay much attention to the screen. For her the keyboard is a new thing to play with, and from time to time she’s also amused by the sounds and the image coming from the screen. But I’m happy that I’m maximizing her exposure to her mother tongue through these sessions, and eventually she’ll grow to appreciate those moments spent talking online with granny from Spain.

Language Acquisition in Bilingual Countries

Much of Spain is bilingual with various regional languages spoken.

When faced with the decision of bringing up our children bilingual or giving up and just live with the main language of the country, we are influenced by many factors. One of the reasons for giving up for many people is social pressure. Despite the increasing research out there showing that learning two languages at the same time “won’t confuse” your children, many people still would throw this back at you.

However, we forget often that there are many countries and smaller areas out there where learning at least two languages is the norm. We have several examples in Spain, where there are four official languages cohabiting together with Castilian, and a couple of unofficial ones!

In this article, I’d like to introduce you to my cousing, Paula. She is a bilingual Spaniard. However she didn’t start her life as a bilingual. Her first mother tongue is Spanish and she became bilingual in her second language when she moved to Catalunya at the age of 7, and learnt to speak Catalan to a native standard.

This is what she says about her experience bringing up two bilingual children, in a one-parent-one-language household:

My experience as a bilingual mother is very good. I’ve never had any problem at all. My children got used to communicate in both languages equally. They chose the language they use depending on who they’re talking to.
It was a bit more difficult for me, because I started to hear spoken Catalan when I was about 7 years old. I was lucky because I had a teacher in school who always spoke in Catalan, so that meant that I had to pay more attention to be able to understand what she was saying.
Now, I do the same thing that my children do. I just choose my language depending on the person, and I just switch from one to the other without even noticing.

Mi experiencia como madre bilingüe es muy buena, no he tenido nunca el más mínimo problema.Los niños se acostumbran ha expresarse en los dos
idiomas por igual.
Según con quien hablen utilizan con idioma o bien otro.
A mi me costo un poco más, pues yo empecé a oír el catalán cuando tenía unos 7 años, lo bueno para mi fue que la profesora que tenía en el cole
se expresaba siempre en catalán, ello implicaba que yo prestaba más atención para poderla entender.
Actualmente me pasa como a mis hijos dependiendo de la persona que hablo inmediatamente uso catalán o bien castellano sin darme cuenta.

Hola
La meva experiència com a mare bilingüe és molt bona, no he tingut mai el més mínim problema.Los nens s’acostumen ha expressar-se en els dos
idiomes per igual.
Segons amb qui parlin utilitzen amb idioma o bé un altre.
A mi em va costa una mica més, ja que jo vaig començar a sentir el català quan tenia uns 7 anys, una cose bone per a mi va ser que la professora que tenia a l’escola
s’expressava sempre em català, això implicava que jo parava més atenció per poder entendre.
Actualment em passa com els meus fills depenent de la persona que parlo immediatament ´parlo castella o bé català sense donar-me compte.

Obviously the experience is going to be different for a child growing up in a bilingual country, where he is going to be exposed to both language quite a lot of the time. A bilingual child growing up in England for instance, will be exposed to English for most of the day in the outside. This is why it’s important to get as much input in the second language as you can.

It would be great to hear of people with experience in a bilingual country.

Second language and Home Education

One of the main issues at the moment in many countries is the state of education. In England I hear lots of complaints about the system and the apparent dumbing down of education, but then I hear the same complaints from other parents in Spain. Whether this is true or not, it is clear that for bilingual families education is a big issue in our lives. Sending your kid to school in a certain country means that their whole mind set will be built around that particular educational experience. It will also add another layer of difficulty as the social language will take over the language spoken at home.

I recently read some good advice, or at least it was for me, I am sure other people may differ. Anyway, I read that it is a good idea to teach children to read in the second language before they learn to read in the main language of the country. The reason given is that if they learn to read first in that language by the time they go to school, they will already be reading comfortably books and resources in the second language, which will help them to build up their vocabulary in that language, thus keeping it alive. To me, it makes total sense. However discussing this with another bilingual mum, she confessed that although she had thought about doing that, she decided to wait till her child could read English properly.

I think deciding if your kid reads in English or the second language first has to be a personal decision. However there are some other things to take into account. If the writing system of your language is quite complicated like Chinese for instance, I suppose it does make sense to get them reading in English first, as it takes years to be quite competent in Chinese. However, in my case, I believe learning to read in Spanish first will be an advantage, as Spanish is mainly phonetic and there are only a few exceptions. I do believe that for similar languages it will be a good thing to start reading in the second language. It can become also like a little nice activity for parent and child, something I would share with my daughter. We could read the same stories together.

However, thinking about reading and education also reminds me of school. It’s only so much one can do in a day, and we spend about 8 hours sleeping… of the 16 hours left you have to go to work or school… it just seems such a short time you have with your kid! Then I start panicking when will I be able to teach her to read in Spanish, to learn about her country and about all those men and women who lived through its history!

Maybe I can start teaching her to read early, she won’t officially have to be in school after she’s five. Although most kids start reception at four. Gosh! Why sending her at four when she can start at five. There are so many things to think about. I really want her to have the best of two worlds, and then it’s when I start thinking about home education.

The thought comes to me more as a necessity than a choice. In England school doesn’t really represent a “qualification”. Students don’t sit official exams until they do their GCSEs or A levels. However in most countries school in itself is a qualification, with that I mean that you have to sit exams every year and you only manage to properly finish school if you attain a certain level. If you don’t, you have to resit your exams.

This may sound harsh, but the truth is that if we ever go back to Spain and she decides to get a job or apply for a job as a civil servant she will need the “official” school certificate, that one only gets by passing exams, not by “turning up” to school for a few years. Maybe I’m worrying about nothing, maybe we won’t move, maybe she’ll never want to live in Spain, who knows? However, since here there is no “official qualification” until GCSEs, it does make more sense to me to try to home educate her so she can at least sit the official exams in Spanish.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t get a good background education in her English heritage and culture. But I feel that we would have accessed to a wider choice of subjects and education working at home and joining different home education groups. Besides, there is the other advantage, if you aren’t in a school you can spend long spells of time abroad. She could spend time in Spain learning there. Which she can’t do if she has to attend a school until the end of July, and have only one month summer holiday.

Anyway, all of this is still too far off. But I’ve always liked planning ahead and now that I’ve got a bit of time I am going to do some reading. Not long ago I was lucky enough to come across two classics in a charity shop, How Children Learn (Penguin Education)
and How Children Fail (Classics in child development)
” by John Holt, so I will start with those. There are also lots of resources and help in local home education networks. When I started researching homeschooling I was surprised to find out how many families were doing it. Some of them were driven to it by circumstances, bullying, illnesses, etc but most people are in it because they made an informed choice. I think for bilingual families it could be a good way to keep their second language alive.

Four Months on…

Little Baby is here already, growing fast and tall. At the moment the only thing she’s worried about is where her next feed is coming from. She doesn’t mind what language we speak to her as long as she gets fed!

She’s already trying to communicate by grunting and grabbing. It’s cute to see how she “talks” to her dollies or her granddad, in her baby language talk that only she understand.

In terms of mummy’s plan of talking to her in two different languages, well this is what we have got up to. We have set a more or less fixed routine so some days we speak only Spanish and some days only French, but when daddy is home we speak English to daddy.

I’m also trying to set up a group of like-minded parents and with good French level who want to speak to their children in French. The group would be something like a support group, so we can meet, organize activities for the children, sing French songs, etc.

There are a couple of people on the group so far, and I need to do some marketing to get the word out.

There are also some language activities around which sound interesting, groups where they teach nursery rhymes in French to kids, or French classes for toddles and little ones. I think these are brilliant in terms of the fun factor, although this shouldn’t be the only activity for immersion. I’ve read somewhere recently that for a kid to really become anything like bilingual, they need to be exposed to the language at least 1/3 of their waking time. So, unfortunately one hour a week of nursery rhymes is hardly going to do the trick. Although, I still believe it’s great in terms of the fun factor for baby and parent, and the social factor as well. Getting out and about and meeting other parents is also important.

So, anyway at the moment we are sticking to our program of one day French one day Spanish. I’m collecting baby books and nursery rhymes in both languages. Our local second hand bookshop has a very good section, and sometimes you can find French and Spanish baby books.

At the moment songs are the most important. As Baby enjoys music and seeing me jumping about and doing funny faces. But the main thing is that nursery rhymes in any language are really aimed to teach babies words and actions, so they’re perfect for learning without studying!

And that’s all for now.

Learning versus acquiring

In my opinion when you are talking to your child in a foreign language they are  not learning it,  but you are not teaching them. I would like to expand no a bit on this.
[Read more...]

Why I wanted to bring up my child bilingual

I moved to England a few years ago, I am originally from Spain. I never planned to marry here, and have children. But you can’t plan love and life sometimes happens to you.

As I am a bilingual parent myself, or almost bilingual, it makes sense to pass on this skill on to my children. Spanish is my native tongue, and I speak English to a high standard. I always liked learning languages, I started studying English in school when I was eleven years old, and then I continued at university.

After years of grammar drills, conversation exchanges and sitting down to learn long lists of vocabulary, it is quite disheartening to find out that it is actually quite difficult to understand anything at all when you actually talk to a native speaker. In my first long stay abroad, I spent a year in Ireland, I improved my conversation skills a lot. I still remember the first day I landed in Dublin, the father of my host family came to pick me up from the airport, and it was a shock to find out I could not understand a single word he was saying, after 10 years of English lessons.

This is not uncommon, it is quite easy to learn to read and write a language, but the hard bit are the sounds!

Living abroad in a bilingual household, it does make sense to help my child to become conversant with two languages. English she is going to learn anyway, as she will live in England, immersed in the language. Spanish she will learn from me, and she will need it to communicate with her Spanish family. It will be more difficult as she will not have a “Spanish” society around her, but that’s where my input and effort will have to take on their role.

I also speak French fluently, although it’s not my native language, and I don’t speak it as well as English. But it was also very hard for me learning it, it took me years of effort, trips abroad and hard-core grammar drills. I wanted to save my child from going through the same struggle, so I decided to pass this language on to my daughter as she grows up.

Now, lots of people have said to me that it may be a good idea to teach her (teach is not the right word here, but I will get to that later) Spanish as it’s my native tongue and the language of my family. They said something about it close to your heart… but most people have tried to discourage me from also “teaching” her French. Apparently, as it’s not my native tongue, I will not feel it close to my “heart”, whatever that means. What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching my daughter a language which is not my native language:

Disadvantages.

She will pick up a foreign accent, she may well pick up wrong grammar as I’m not a native speaker, she will not have family to speak it with, apparently (so I’m told) there is no “feeling” for the language…

Advantages

Better to speak French with a foreign accent than no French at all, you also pick up wrong grammar from teachers at school but it’s easier to polish it if you have a good grounding and you can then communicate with native speakers, read and watch telly/listen to radio, teachers in school are not necessarily native speakers so if she learns from a tender age at home she will not have to learn grammar/vocabulary at school,

So, basically if I “teach” or rather talk to my daughter in French from a very tender age (read from birth), I will end up with a child who speaks French with a strong Spanish/English accent, who can understand TV/radio and generally native speakers, who will be able to read French books independently and therefore improve her vocabulary/grammar. It’s terrible I know, speaking French with a foreign accent and making mistakes… of course in England there aren’t any people working in all types of jobs, from business to education who after twenty odd years in the country still have a strong accent… it’s a crime having a foreign accent, isn’t it? To be fair, I know quite a few bilingual kids in England, offspring of bilingual parents who speak fluently their parents’ language but with a strong foreign accent! So, what’s the problem?

In my next posts, I will be writing about what methods and strategies I want to use, and also why I think that the term “teach” a language shouldn’t be used when bringing up bilingual children.