#IMLD: Being Bilingual: Words I like from other languages

After yesterday’s less than serious offering on the benefits of bilingualism, today’s post is slightly more serious, but still a fun topic. They may not be raindrops on roses and whispers on kittens…  but these are, indeed, a few of my favourite things (words, anyway!).

One of the best thing about being bilingual is being able to pick and choose le juste mot – to say exactly what you want to say. Some of the greatest words in language relate to how people think and see the world, so it follows that some things just can’t be said “right” in other languages. Sometimes the word is there, but under-used, and sometimes it isn’t there at all. Technically, this goes by the fancy name of “code-switching” and often is criticized as *laziness*. Personally, I think it is just being savvy about how your languages work, and being dedicated to meaning over form.
As I was making dinner tonight, I referenced (to my English-speaking husband) that something was “polyvalent”. I thought it was the perfect word for the situation, he thought it was foreign… turns out that it does exist in English, but obviously isn’t used as much, which is why he didn’t recognize it. In fact, it’s rare enough that WordPress doesn’t recognize it either, and keeps trying to change it to “prevalent”.
So I decided to make a little list of my favourite words from other languages, words that I can’t imagine living without.

“se changer les idées”: This is an expression that refers to doing something different to change how you feel about something. Like going for a walk to stop worrying about the football scores.. or some other important French-type event. I use this all the time, in English, because it often expresses what I need to do…

“lekker”: This fabulous Dutch word is often translated as “yummy”, which is true, but can be added to all manner of things: “lekker auto”, “lekker boots”, “lekker weather”, and so on. Really, just an all-purpose positive modifier.

“(uno) poquito”: Is there any nicer way to say “a little (bit)” – it sounds exactly like it means!

“gezellig”: The actual translation is “cozy” but it is also used for nice experiences or particularly pleasant times with people you like.

“Gesundheit”: Just “Bless you” in German, but it sounds so much better. In fact, it almost sounds like a sympathy-sneeze (and yes, it is better than the Dutch equivalent gezonheid).

“l”esprit d’escalier”: You know when someone insults you, and you can’t think of a thing to say… until you are walking away… this is the French “spirit of the staircase” – when you find the perfect retort, just too late. How do you say that in English?

“mi amor”: It may not be known as the language of love, but Spanish does this right. In so many other languages we call the people we love strange things: cabbage, baby, doe, duck, angel, bear, hen, sweetie, honey… and even (in Dutch) little fart… but the simple and sweet “mi amor” gets me every time.

“bellisimo”: It’s wonderful, and it sounds wonderful. What more is there to say?

“aye”: I love the Gaelic “aye” – why would you want to say boring old “yes” when you could say “aye”?

And finally, a word that I use in English, that isn’t actually a word, but should be:

“ept”: If one can be inept, then why can’t one be ept? I’m using it, and hoping it catches on…

These words are of course limited to languages I am familiar with – feel free to share your favourite words from your language, or words your kids use across languages!

PS. Thanks to the mostly-English speaking husband for inspiring this post.

#IMLD: Top 5 Reasons to Choose Bilingualism for your Child

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

One of the main reasons I started doing seminars for parents was the lack of information among many monolinguals in our community about the benefits of bilingualism. In the expat world, we meet many, many bilingual families, but there are also a lot of families who are strictly monolingual (let’s be honest, they are mostly English-speaking families…). The bottom line is that bilingualism is beneficial to almost all children, so I’d like to give a little run-down of the Top 5 reasons monolinguals should consider using a language in their environment to promote bilingualism for their children.

Reason 1: The experience of acquiring a second language has great knock-on effects for children. Studies have looked at areas as far-ranging as maths and creativity, and found that either bilinguals come out ahead of monolinguals, or they are the same – no negative effects from properly introduced bilingualism.

Reason 2: Learning another language makes you more empathetic to others who are struggling to speak your language. And we can all use a little more empathy in our world.

Reason 3: Especially for expats: Having your kids learn some (or a lot) of the local language helps them feel more at home in the place they live, and they can take a little bit of it with them when you move on.

Reason 4: Acquiring a additional language at a young age (any language!) has the potential to turn your kids into better learners of other languages later on in life.

Reason 5: New research has found that active bilinguals do better in terms of aging – on average, they develop age-related memory diseases (Alzheimer’s) up to five years later than monolinguals.  Managing more than one language is gymnastics for the brain, and keeps it healthy longer.

I am reposting this in support of the “International Mother Language Day 2015” campaign – if you’d like to share you bilingualism success story please email me.

Five ways your school can support multilingualism

photo (6)

As we come to the end of the school year I’ve been reflecting on how much the school impacts successful bilingual development. Most schools are not “bilingual” schools, or “immersion” schools, or indeed any kind of language-based school model. Many schools believe that their only job is to ensure that all their pupils master the language of the school, which therefore absolves them from any need to support multilingualism or the development of their pupils’ “other” languages. This, despite the fact that research clearly demonstrates that the pathway to success in a new language at school is best achieved through supporting the first/home language. Continue reading

Adoption and Language Issues: Should our children be bilingual?

This topic came to me through a seminar attendee, and it is a question being posed by more and more families, as the rates of international adoption rise. Children adopted from “abroad” arrive in their new homes speaking a different language, and have a great need to learn their new language quickly, in order to acclimate and partake in their new family and culture. In many cases, these children are considered as, and treated as, bilinguals. But are they in reality bilingual? And more to the point, should they be bilingual?
There are, of course, no easy answers. But there are some areas to consider and some things families can do to smooth the way for their new arrivals.
Firstly, most internationally adopted children are not truly bilingual. If anything, they are transitional bilinguals, who have a first language which very quickly gives way to the new language. This process of language attrition, or loss, is often called “subtractive bilingualism”, which is when one language replaces another. Most literature on bilingualism tends to consider subtractive bilingualism to be a “bad” thing, with the normal goal being “additive bilingualism”, which is adding a new language and maintaining the old language. However, in the case of internationally adopted children, there are very often no resources easily available to help support the child’s first language, and no real communicative necessity, unless the first language is a part of the every day life of the family. It is also known that internationally adopted children tend to “lose” their first language very quickly – even as soon as 3-6 months after arrival in their new home they often have very little expressive language left. It is not known for certain why this process of attrition happens so quickly, but best guesses tend towards the child’s great desire to fit in with their new environment, and possibly also to associated bad feelings about the country of origin or placement pre-adoption. In addition, the usual complete lack of necessity means that the children do not see the point of continuing with their first language.
There are families who attempt to support the first language of their new arrivals, either by finding a “community of practice” or by engaging babysitters or tutors who use the language with the children. This seems to meet with limited success in terms of absolute language maintenance in most cases. However, the message that any support sends to the children about the value of their first language and culture is not to be ignored. Children who arrive in a new country with no language or cultural skills undergo a massive world-shift in a very short time. Having no means to explore and explain and question the process would necessarily be a very isolating experience, especially for older children. Having the opportunity to use their language to communicate with another child, an adult, a teacher, gives them an emotional outlet that they will otherwise be denied. The time frame in which the child chooses to use their first language may be short, but the sense of security and outlet for expression it would provide them could be powerful. So at the least, I would encourage parents to try and find someone that their child can speak with in their first language to help with the transition period, and to ensure that the child knows that their first language and culture have value, even as they transition towards their new language and culture.
With no or little resources to support “bilingualism”, parents of new arrivals can still plan for the best possible transition support. These are some points to consider when making a plan:

1. What do we know about our child’s proficiency in their first language?
Ideally, you need to know how their language development is, in terms of both passive and active language skills, and literacy, if applicable. This will help with support at school – the difference between getting support for a child who has a language delay in their first language and will need intensive support to acquire the new language, and a child who had “limited English (or other) proficiency” who will need different types of learning support.

2. Keep in mind the different types of language proficiency.
BICS (basic interpersonal communicative skills) is the ability to engage in conversation about regular activities and context-dependent speech. Internationally adopted children tend to develop this proficiency very quickly, as they are highly motivated. CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) is the ability to do deeper processing, of the type needed to succeed in school. Comparing, analysing, evaluating, and understanding of conceptual rather than concrete are all underpinned by CALP. This type of proficiency takes much longer than BICS, and in fact can take up to seven years or more to fully develop. During the gap period, when children have reached BICS but not CALP, they are much more likely to be identified as “learning delayed” or needing special educational help, as they will not necessarily perform as well as parents and educators expect, as they seem “fluent” in their new language.

3. What support can we give or arrange for our children while they are still “language learners”?
The answer to this question depends in large part, but not exclusively, on the school chosen. A solid understanding of language development (including BICS and CALP) and a willingness to educate teachers and administrators is a good first step. Knowledge of language development is not widespread across our schools yet, so we need to be the ones to carry the banner for our children. Very often internationally adopted children are grouped with “bilinguals” and offered the same support, but in fact their process is very different to children who maintain their first language at home. Parents can also support learning at home, in a variety of ways. There are some good resources available through the Post-Adoption Learning Center, including courses designed to help older children develop school skills (like the SmartStart Program: Helping an Internationally Adopted Child Develop a Foundation for Learning.
Toolbox II, Ages 5 to 8

Other resources may be available through local centres and organisations, especially where there are larger concentrations of children arriving from the same region.

Whatever resources you choose, and however you do or do not support the first language of your newly arrived child, it is fundamentally important to realise that this journey of learning and acclimation is a marathon and not a sprint. Even though many of these children “seem fine” very quickly and seem to need little support for language or learning, appearances can be deceiving and lack of attention and lack of a support plan in the early years can lead to long-term academic consequences which are much harder to rectify years down the line.

Mother Tongue reading: A “Beyond EAL” project update

As I have mentioned previously, I am working with Dr. Jane Spiro from Oxford Brookes university on a teacher-training based research project this year. We are halfway through the training year, and it’s been both exciting and moving to see how the school and teachers are taking on-board the ideals behind the program of being an “EAL- empowered school” and the practical implications of this.
One of the most important initiatives to come out of the program so far is the introduction of “Mother tongue story telling” at the school. This is a part of the “Parents as Language Partners” program we are setting up during the training year.
I would like to share with you this fantastic article from the Oxford Brookes website, detailing some of activities and the impact on the school and children. I hope you are as impressed as I am with the quick uptake of new methods and ideas at the school, and how well these are being received by the community.
I’d love to hear your feedback, or hear from you if you work at or know a school that may be interested in the program.
MA TESOL students help local schools embrace EAL training

Bilingual = Biliterate?

Continuing on the theme of reading, I’d like to talk about biliteracy. If bilingualism is the ability to be able to use two or more languages, is literacy a necessary part of this? Do you need to be able to read and write a language to qualify as “bilingual”? And if you would like your children to be literate in two or more languages, how do you get there?

The answer to the first question – Is literacy necessary for bilingualism – is “not really”. People all over the world speak two or more languages, and are literate in only one, or even none. It is not necessary to be literate to be bilingual. However, literacy does make it easier to maintain a language, especially if you live outside a community of practice. Literacy brings you access to a host of ways to gather passive input (reading) and use a language (writing) that may not be available to you if you are not surrounded by speakers of this language. Reading is also one of the best ways to grow vocabulary in a language, so if a child has little daily exposure (in form of oral input) to a language, being able to read will help them acquire a better vocabulary, and therefore be able to use the language better.
So for parents raising bilingual children, literacy is always a good goal for at least two of their languages. That said, is there a “best practice” way to get there? The answer to this question is “not really”. There are many routes to biliteracy, and which one is right for your child depends on the languages in question, your situation, and of course, your child. One important point to remember is that there is no evidence that *simultaneous* biliteracy (learning to read in two or more languages at the same time) is better than sequential biliteracy. Children can and do learn to read in the second (or subsequent) language any time from months to years after learning to read and write in the first language. So, there is no need to pressure or overload a child to achieve literacy in both languages early on in schooling. In my opinion, if there are no clear benefits to simultaneous biliteracy, then it is (generally) better to wait until the child is comfortably literate in the school language before formally beginning literacy training in the second language.
Why? Simply because if they don’t need to work that hard, why make them? Once a child has gained literacy skills in one language, presuming the alphabets are the same, literacy in the other language comes quite easily. Even if alphabets are different, a lot of the basics of literacy are the same, so the second will still come more easily. My kids are in a school where they are learning to read in the class language (English) in the same year, and at the same time as they are learning to read in their registered “mother tongue” (French). I watch them go through this process, and compare it to my older daughter, who learned to read in the school language first (French) and then one day picked up a book and read it in English. The whole process was so much easier for my older daughter. Despite the fact that my twins *are* doing it – learning to read in two languages at the same time – I think it is harder than it needs to be.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jim Cummins about this (notice the linguistic-geek name-dropping… 🙂 ) and his opinion (which I respect greatly) is that it is fine for kids to learn to read in the school language and mother tongue at the same time. But as hard as I try, I can’t equate “fine”, with “the right thing”. Just because they can do it doesn’t mean they should have to – it makes that critical first year of schooling so much harder. For parents with children in an early-literacy school system (literacy before the age of six) this is an even more important point. Children work very hard to learn to read and write, even when it is taught at the “right” age (6-7 years old). Why make our kids work so much harder than necessary, and in the meantime impact their enjoyment of school and learning, for no good reason? Because if we go back to the bottom line, learning to read in the second language later leads to the same academic outcomes – not better, not worse!

So my top points for parents who want to achieve biliteracy for their children are these:

1. Prioritize actual literacy in the school language first.
2. Do lots of literacy-type activities in the other language(s) – reading out loud, alphabet/writing system play, writing play.
3. Have a plan for how you will help your child become literate in the other language.
4. Remember that reading and writing should be fun for kids – they need to learn in a positive way, when they are cognitively ready.
5. Don’t tell Jim Cummins I disagree with him…

Using the “second language” at home: What’s the etiquette?

This post was inspired by a reader question, one that I think may be of interest to many minority language parents. A Greek couple have just moved to the UK with their young son (almost 3-years old). They are being encouraged by the nursery to use English at home with him, to help him “learn English faster” and are wondering what they should do about this. It’s always a tricky thing to deal with – when educators are telling you to do one thing for your child’s good, and you feel that the opposite is better. How do you work around this? Whose responsibility is it to “teach” the second language? How will it affect the minority language if they parents start using the majority language (in this case, English) in the home? Will it confuse the child or help? Here are some things to consider when making these decisions.

Firstly, you must consider the age and development of your child. If he understands that there are two different languages and can discuss this with you (even in a basic way, like “This is cheese in Greek and in English we say cheese.” then they are more able to handle the parents changing language with them. So, you could then offer some sentences or words in Greek and then say them in English too. However, there are two drawbacks to this method. Firstly, it may not work. If the child has the choice to listen in the language they know the best, or try harder in the new language, guess which choice they usually make? Yes, of course, they may just block out the unfamiliar English input and focus on the Greek. You could push the issue, but then you put yourself in a position of creating conflict between your child’s two languages. The second issue is that when parents start using the majority language, they can be setting foot on a slippery slope – as the child gets older and more confident in English, they may stop wanting to use the minority language (Greek) with the parents. Because, after all, the parents started using English with them first…

Another issue to consider is how good the child’s first language development is at the moment. A child who is still in the process of acquiring the first language accurately (this is a life-long process, but the critical years are up until about 4-years old), they need the continued quantity and quality of input provided by the parents. This is absolutely necessary to provide the child with a solid, well-developed “L1”. If the parents start prioritizing the new language, to the detriment of the L1, this can have disastrous consequences for the child.

So, all these would point to the answer being that the parents should not start using English at home. How then, to deal with the issues brought up (and suggestions from) the nursery.
Firstly, you need to let the nursery know that your intentions are to raise your child bilingual which means that Greek is just as important as English. And that, developmentally, your child needs to continue to grow in Greek, which will also help their English grow as well.
Secondly, you can agree, with the nursery staff, on some critical communicative points that you will help your child understand. Pictures around the classroom can be very helpful for children who can’t communicate yet, but need to express certain ideas.

This is an example of a communication tool that children can use in the classroom before they are verbal in the new language. Nurseries that have non-native speaker children should have a system of helping pre-verbal children to communicate their needs (thanks to the British School of Amsterdam for the photo from their excellent resources).
With parental help to show and talk about these resources in the classroom, the parents can use the L1 – the strongest language – to help children acquire knowledge of classroom routines etc, which they then can learn the new words for more easily.

As children become more aware of their two languages, and able to translate/differentiate, parents can choose to use the majority language at home. They can create “domains of use” in which they use English together with the child, to help them learn some basic skills (turn-taking in games, for example) and vocabulary in English. These should be well-delineated in time and space (we are going to sit at the table every Saturday afternoon and play this game in English) to make sure that the child understands that this is a language-based activity and not a lifestyle change.

The bottom line is that children can learn another language from the “immersion” (or submersion) method, even when they start at later ages. The parents’ main job is to support the growth of the L1 (or mother tongue, or whatever you want to call it!) and by doing so support their child’s cognitive development. If they feel that their child is ready, developmentally, to understand the use of two languages at home (in well-defined situations) then they can choose to do this. They can always support nursery learning by talking about all things nursery-related in the L1, to help the child understand what they are/should be doing while at nursery.
The job of the nursery staff is to provide resources for pre-verbal children to use in the classroom, and to indicate to the parents (via handout or email etc.) what important concepts/routines they want the children to understand in order to be able to participate in class.

And if everybody does their job, then the children will come out as successful bilinguals, which should always be the “end of the road” goal.