Being a Fish in Foreign Waters

Author Laura Caputo-Wickham discusses her Children’s book, A Fish in Foreign Waters

I was born in the gorgeous city of Rome where I graduated from college in Languages and Foreign Cultures. In 2008, love brought me to the United Kingdom where I taught Italian for many years and loved every minute of it.
Three years later my first daughter came along and with her I developed a great interest in bilingualism.

I had always known that I would raise my children to be bilingual. I was raised bilingual myself as was my mother, whose parents migrated from Italy to South Africa in the Seventies.

A Fish in Foreign Waters by Laura Caputo-Wickham

A Fish in Foreign Waters by Laura Caputo-Wickham

When you have the privilege of being part of three generations of bilinguals you inevitably start noticing you have things in common.
Some of these are the fun aspects of being bilingual like the constant code switching used while telling a very important story. You cannot waste precious time looking for the right words, so you pick the first words that come to your head regardless of language.

Or the “secret language” that you share with your parent, often used to gossip about people standing next to you assuming they don’t understand (and sometimes your assumption is wrong!).

Other common aspects are less amusing, though – like the feeling of awkwardness for being different, especially as a child.

I realised this when my daughter was around three years old. I detected some hesitation in speaking the minority language and could see the same in the older bilingual children of friends.

I started doing a bit of research on the matter and I came across a quote by Professor Colin Baker, who writes in his book, A Parent’s and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism (Multilingual Matters, Third Edition): “Children often don’t want to appear different. They want to conform to the status-giving behavior of the peer group. This may entail a temporary non-use of one of their languages.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that children don’t want to be different. They want to wear the same clothes as their friends, they want to watch the same shows as their friends and, most of all, they want to speak the same language. In addition, I learned that very early on children develop awareness of what language they should invest energy in learning. In other words, they don’t see any reason why they should “waste” time learning a language that, as far as they are concerned, only the grandmother they see every so often on Skype speaks.

Suddenly I started seeing a pattern in my daughter’s reluctance with my own experience as a child and the stories that my mother used to tell me: I realised that we used to perceive bilingualism as a burden rather than a privilege.

Children are often unaware of the benefits speaking two languages can bring and by the time they realise they have probably wasted precious years when their brain would have been very receptive to the languages.
This thought made me feel quite sad. Something needed to be done! And this was the inspiration for my book.

A Fish in Foreign Waters is the story of Rosie Ray, a fish whose world gets thrown upside down when she has to move to a different bay. She will have to learn a new language, make new friends and face some of the challenges that bilingual children often face – like being embarrassed by their parent’s accent or the different food in their lunchboxes. But on the day of her birthday she will make an exciting discovery that will help her see how much she has actually gained from being able to speak two languages.

My hope is that this book can be a helpful tool in getting our children excited about being bilingual and help, in some way, to lighten the burden of all the parents out there who are doing so much to help them through this challenging yet beautiful journey.

To order copy of the book, please visit http://www.longbridgepublishing.com/Pages/AFishinForeignWaters.aspx

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...]

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!

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.

Celebrities speaking other languages

We’re used to US and British-based superstars speaking English. But here are some celebrities who are bilingual, or at least pretty fluent, in other languages.

Can you think of any other good ones to add?

Here’s Colin Firth being interviewed in italian

Mila Kunis’s Russian language interview in Moscow

The Fantastic Four’s Ioan Gruffudd speaking Welsh

Kim Cattrall speaking fluent German

Rhys Ifans talking about poet Dylan Thomas in Welsh

Natalie Portman speaks Hebrew

Here’s Charlize Theron speaking Afrikaans with a Dutch speaking Belgian reporter…

Jodie Foster’s French interview

Singer Shakira manages to speak five different languages:

Ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid footballer Steve McManaman speaking ‘scouse’ Spanish.

Cillian Murphy acting in Irish Gaelic

Sandra Bullock speaking in German

Discoveries after 4 years of raising bilingual children

My eldest daughter, Martha, as just turned four and her sister, Malena, has just turned two. Both children have existed in a multilingual environment from day one. Martha speaks English and Spanish to more of less equal fluency and fully understands French, with a much lesser propensity to use it.

Looking back over the last four years, these are the discoveries I’ve found most interesting.

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain...

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain…

1. Being bilingual or multilingual did not significantly ‘stunt’ the age at which language was acquired. Some friends of Martha’s monolingual friends were very quick talkers so for a brief period I wondered but, looking at a wider selection of children, I realised she was just more average rather than precocious. And, of course, she was learning two languages. Malena, by contrast, is very much a ‘quick talker’ and frequently shocks us with the surprisingly elaborate utterances she sometimes produces in English, Spanish and even French. The important thing to note is that children develop at their own pace.

2. Bilingualism makes kids happy! It’s important to note that our approach to raising bilingual children has been about ‘exposing not imposing’. Through a mix of conscious language use in the home, attending play groups and social gatherings conducted in other languages, use of books, media and technology we have attempted to create a lively multilingual environment with no ‘drilling’ of language into the kids. Martha now wants to learn to and write, and is seeking support from us. Children are natural, avid learners and I feel that trying to force learning onto them merely interferes with their natural curiosity. She’s also asking a lot of ‘scientific’ questions so by using our small garden and books about the planets as illustrations I am trying to answer them.

3. Learning a THIRD language has worked. Lidia’s native tongue is Spanish but she also speaks English and French to a near-native level of fluency. She introduced French too from day one and Martha attends a French-speaking nursery school. I have to admit this was something I watched carefully. Would a third language be just too much? Would she be ‘lost’ or stressed by the French school? As it turned out it merely means that she fully understands French language – we believe as well as English and Spanish. Until recently she hadn’t uttered much French with us but is increasingly communicating in French with people she identifies as French speakers. In other words, she can identify the language of and English, Spanish or French speaker and speak the appropriate language, albeit with less ability in the third language. This is remarkable to me.

4. The children have a full and proper relationship with their Spanish extended family. Both girls talk more than once a week with their Aunt and Grandmother on Skype and when Martha visits Madrid she can talk to children she meets like a Spanish native speaker. It would have been terrible to have cut her off linguistically from all this by delaying language learning until later when it then has to be taught rather than acquired naturally.

5. My Spanish has improved and I’ve even picked up a fair amount of French. It was an eye opener one day when Martha asked me for something in Spanish and I had to quickly Google the word for a translation! She’s quickly outpaced my rather intermediate semi-fluent Spanish and I feel the need to keep up.

6. The kids already have a very global outlook. From birth the girls have existed in a multilingual and multicultural environment and know about other countries, different languages. It’s a world away from when I was a kid (I was probably 18 before I had a conversation with someone from the North of England) and I think the girls will definitely be much richer for it.

Speaking in Tongues documentary challenges America to think differently about bilingualism

While in multilingual Europe people tend to see fluency in more than one language a distinct advantage, in some countries it can be a political hot potato. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States, where the growth of Spanish speaking in particular has proven controversial.

It’s a common idea that a single official language glues a nation together and that exploring other languages might somehow undermines this. Even progressively-minded people sometimes assume that encouraging bilingualism to flourish among immigrant groups will leave them marginalised and socially disadvantaged. Yet the makers of documentary Speaking in Tongues uncover something very different.

For example, language learning has a positive effect on intellectual growth and cognitive development, improving a child’s understanding of his/her native language and that students in language immersion programs learn to read, write, speak, and listen in English just as well or better as students in all-English programs.

The film begins with an ordinary first day of public school kindergarten – expect the teacher speaks only Chinese to primarily white and Asian American students. They are taking part in a language immersion class, where they receive 90% of their instruction in Cantonese. While this might sound gruelling, the children are clearly curious and enjoying themselves and, remarkably, their school will test first in English and mathematics among the district’s 76 elementary schools.

“Sometimes a small idea has big implications” say the film’s directors Marcia Jarmel & Ken Schneider in a statement. “Consider America’s resolute commitment to remaining an “English only” nation. It turns out that our attitudes about language reflect much bigger concerns: that language is a metaphor for the barriers that come between neighbors, be they across the street or around the world. Our idea in making Speaking in Tongues was to showcase a world where these communication barriers are being addressed.”

Speaking in Tongues follows the linguistic journey of four students: Durrell is a 2nd grader at Starr King Elementary where and his classmates are already reading and writing in Mandarin. 7th grader at Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, Kelly Wong reads and writes both Cantonese and Mandarin. Jason, is maintaining a great grades in middle school, testing above grade level in both English and Spanish. Julian is a sophomore at Lowell High School where he is currently taking the highest level of Chinese offered in the school district. There stories all reveal the potential strength of a multilingual America.

People in the USA can rent the Speaking in Tongues documentary online via Amazon Prime here: Speaking in Tongues (Home/Personal/Nonprofessional Use Only)

To learn more about the documentary, to arrange a screening, visit:

http://speakingintonguesfilm.info

Looking for a French childminder or a Polish teacher?

Looking for a French childminder or a Polish teacher, or any other language professional for that matter? As a freelance mum of two little trilingual people, I have been often faced with the need to book a babysitter for a few hours, or tempted to get them looked after one day when I had a lot of work. I’ve often wished that I could just find a proper childminder or babysitter who spoke French or Spanish. As any working mum will tell you, although we all love our independence and our work, we are still torn in between two worlds, the professional one and the children’s one. So, being the language freak that I am, I though that maybe getting them looked after by a French or Spanish speaker, and knowing that at least they would be getting that extra input would somehow make up for the fact that I was working rather than spending time with them. [Read more...]

Four years on… how are we doing?

I am sure that some of you who read our blog come back time and time again to see how we are doing, how are the children coping with the multilingual environment. It could be that you are planning the same, you are unsure of what to expect, you want reassurance there are other people out there doing the same, or you are just curious and want to follow our adventure through time. [Read more...]