Archive for the ‘Baby language’ Category

Raising Bilingual Kids

PhD in Parenting blog has a lengthy and interesting post about raising bilingual children, and why and how to do it. Her conclusion for the “why”: “Overall, there seems to be a correlation between learning a second language and overall intelligence and open mindedness.” She also has a good overview of the various methods to use, depending on your family’s situation and environment. The post has generated a lively discussion on the topic in the comments section. Check it out here.


Recommended Readings

*The San Francisco Examiner lists activities and events for celebrating Chinese new year in the area. Hurry, the two week holiday ends this weekend with the Lantern Festival (and the big New Year parade in San Francisco Chinatown).

*A monthly Blogging Carnival focuses on linking bloggers who write about raising bilingual children. This month’s carnival was hosted by SpanglishBaby and features a link from yours truly. Lots of good material in there.

*A new study says babies can be bilingual before birth if their mom speaks two languages while they are in utero.


Two Siblings, Two Languages

When our son was born five years ago, my husband and I decided to use the One Parent One Language method to teach him Mandarin. This made sense for us since we have different native tongues yet we both understand both languages. So far, for both our kids, it has worked beautifully. When L began to talk (not until the age of two), he first said more words in English but clearly understood Chinese. By the time he was two and a half or three, he was carrying on conversations with us at the dinner table, turning to Baba to say something in Chinese and then turning to me to finish the sentence in English. He got furious when I crossed the lines of our system and spoke Chinese to him, and refused to acknowledge that I did understand when he talked to his dad. So he would often interrupt conversations in Chinese to turn to me and translate. Interestingly, he has never minded the rare moments when my husband speaks English to him and I can only guess it’s because, living in an English environment, he hears his father use it more regularly in daily life. He now acknowledges that we all speak both languages but is very proud of the fact that he speaks both better than either of us.

Now that he is fully bilingual, it’s been interesting to see how and with whom he chooses to speak Chinese. At his immersion school, he speaks Mandarin with his teachers, though not often with his classmates, who are mostly native English speakers. Even he and his very best friend — who is also fluent in Chinese, and with whom he has been in a Chinese-speaking childcare environment since they were one year old — always speak English together when playing in or out of school. At his old daycare, the main teacher spoke about 80% Chinese with the kids, but L knew that she understood English, and so for the first year he refused to speak Mandarin to her. Yet with her assistant, who did not speak any English, he spoke only Chinese. For the most part, he has divided his world up into people with whom he speaks Mandarin, and those with whom he speaks English, and very rarely do those boundaries blur.

So too, with our little one, who is now almost two. She is much more verbal than her brother and has been speaking since before she turned one. At eighteen months, she began to designate one language each for me and my husband and now only speaks to us in our own native tongue. She also translates for me when she talks to her dad. Since she started talking so much earlier than L, it’s been fascinating to see the language development so clearly at that age. Sometimes we are floored by her understanding of both languages and her ability to move from one to the other. The other day, for example, she walked into the kitchen and asked her father what he was doing. He responded, “我做一点点工作。” She then immediately came back to me and said, “Baba’s working a little bit.” How did she even know that “一点点” would translate into “a little bit,” much less be able to turn it around into a grammatically correct sentence right away? And the first time she used what is now her favorite expression, 一模一样 (“exactly the same”), she was simply repeating after her brother. At the time, I thought, how cute that she’s trying to say such a complex phrase that she doesn’t even understand, until she turned to me, pointed to the picture L was looking at, and said, “Mama, the same!” Watching the skill with which these little people can absorb and manipulate two very complex and very different languages is truly a wonder.

And now that they both are speaking (non-stop, I might add), it is beautiful to see them communicate between themselves. Together, they switch between English and Chinese, starting a conversation in English, ending it in Chinese, moving back and forth midway. Even when they are fighting. With his sister is the only time I have seen L do this; she is the one person that he has not regimented into one language or another. He knows that in our family, they are the only ones who share the ability to use both languages equally well, and that bonds them. And she learns from him, following his lead as he moves between the two languages, and the two worlds being created in their minds.


Useful tips

ChildBook has posted Top 10 Home Efforts to Help your Kids Learn Chinese Faster. Useful tips for learners of any language.


Christmas Shopping

Below are some suggestions of holiday gifts for the little linguists in your lives. I have mentioned most of these products elsewhere on this site but they are worth pointing out again because each of them has been well-used and loved by my own kids. Happy Shopping!

What young child doesn’t love playing with magnets on the fridge? Why not have them learn some Chinese while they are at it?

Kingka, a matching game that teaches young learners to recognize Chinese characters and learn the meaning. There are various ways to play it depending on the age and fluency of your children, and the sturdy character cards themselves are a great resource.

A beautiful book that creatively introduces a few characters through a fun story.

A gentle CD of songs and counting rhymes designed to teach the basic sounds of Chinese to very young children. One of my kids’ favorite CDs.

A beautiful soothing collection of lullabies that puts both my kids to sleep every night. My little one now sings “You You Zha” (the name of the first song) to signal she is ready for bed.

There is something about the drawings of Elmer that babies just love.


In Defense of Play

As a follow-up to the post about the iPhone app for teaching characters to children, I have a quick story. As L was practicing writing his Chinese numbers for his Mandarin immersion summer camp homework, he proudly showed me that he knows the correct stroke order for each of them. I asked if his teacher had taught him that, and he said, “No, I learned it from your phone.” So the app works (and he loves it). They just need to add more characters; there are only a handful and they are a bit randomly selected (tang 汤, soup, is a useful vocab word but is a complicated character that maybe doesn’t need to be in the first dozen learned).

On a marginally related note, I read a great op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, by child development expert Alison Gopnik, about how children learn and the importance of play. We sent L to a two-week session of Mandarin immersion camp at his school, which overall was a big success. But as great as it is to have a child who is so excited about learning characters and Chinese in general, I felt a little uncomfortable sending him to a camp that was so academically intensive. He learned a lot and had fun, but my idea of summer is play, play, play, ice cream, more play. The point of the Times article, which I found refreshing and true, is that young children learn best through free-form play because they naturally challenge themselves to seek out new experiences and knowledge, without needing fancy toys and DVDs to do it for them. The last paragraph of the article says it all:

But what children observe most closely, explore most obsessively and imagine most vividly are the people around them. There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.

While the summer camps and all the many Chinese teaching props out there are crucial and valuable, our kids have always learned the most Chinese through conversations with their father, games they play at school, songs they enjoy listening to, teachers or caretakers they feel close to, and books they love reading over and over. Flashcards can only go so far. Kids need to play.


How Children Learn Language

The Washington Post reports on interesting new research into how very young children become bilingual:

It’s remarkable that babies being raised bilingual – by simply speaking to them in two languages – can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.

Italian researchers wondered why there wasn’t a delay, and reported this month in the journal Science that being bilingual seems to make the brain more flexible.

The researchers tested 44 12-month-olds to see how they recognized three-syllable patterns – nonsense words, just to test sound learning. Sure enough, gaze-tracking showed the bilingual babies learned two kinds of patterns at the same time – like lo-ba-lo or lo-lo-ba – while the one-language babies learned only one, concluded Agnes Melinda Kovacs of Italy’s International School for Advanced Studies.

While new language learning is easiest by age 7, the ability markedly declines after puberty.

Read the full article here.

A Post parenting blog
also writes about this topic, and the comments section now has an interesting discussion between readers about bilingualism.


Baby’s First Words

On a rainy week, we discovered a wonderful CD that both kids have been enjoying while stuck inside the house: Baby’s First Words in Chinese. I had seen the CD around in stores for a while but never got it since our house is so overloaded with saccharine, syrupy Chinese children’s music and, to be honest, I can’t stand to listen to it anymore. But this CD is lovely, even for the adults who are trapped inside the same house. Part of a series, it is intended for babies up to age 2, and contains 50 short tracks of counting and hand rhymes and simple songs, some traditional and some new. The voices are gentle and not grating. And most important of all, both my children responded to the music as soon as they heard it. T, age 1, sings and hums along with it every time it comes on, and L, age 4.5, listens intently, recognizes some of the songs, and loves that they have alternate lyrics to the versions he has learned.

The CD is designed for parents who may not speak much Chinese at home, with a lengthy booklet about the advantages of multiple language learning for child development. All the song lyrics are included in pinyin and English translation so parents can learn them and sing along. It is intended to introduce very young children to the sounds of Chinese when they are at an important stage in their linguistic development, and the songs are organized by age (yet clearly, from our experience, it appeals to older children as well). You can listen to an audio clip and read sample pages from the booklet here.


Interview with Grace Lin

Grace Lin‘s picture books have beautiful and lively illustrations that children love. Her book One Is a Drummer was one of L’s favorites and it almost single-handedly taught him how to count. The books are in English but introduce Chinese culture and especially food in a very inviting way. On the China Sprout blog, Xiaoning interviews Grace about her work and her transition to writing longer novels for older kids.


Chinese Little Piggy

When I was growing up, my family made up alternative versions of This Little Piggy, depending on where we were traveling and living. A new Chinese version, created by my children’s grandfather, goes like this:

This little piggy read Confucius
This little piggy read Laozi
This little piggy drank doujiang
This little piggy ate baozi
And this little piggy went “Hao a, Hao a, Hao a” all the way home.