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Wednesday, 2 November 2011

M is for multilingualism, D is for dilemma

I would never have considered the idea of teaching K. letters when she was 2 years old. I have read so much on hothouse parenting and how you should never push your child to do something they're not ready for. Reading and writing, I thought, they can learn at school. "Let her play" was what I was thinking.

But one day I was wearing a t-shirt. It had "POLO JEANS" written on it with big, purple letters. K, was fascinated by the weird forms. She couldn't ask me about them, but she could use her finger to point at the letters. The "O's" were particularly exciting. At some point I started explaining: "This is an O. And this is an A". I focused on the vowels because they were easier to explain: Ooo, Aaaa, Eeee. Easy.

I showed her that she can find letters in books as well. And I showed her a "K", and I told her: "This is K. It's the letter your name starts with". She loved this! She then requested to know the letters of all other family members. And so I showed her: "This is T for tata" (daddy in Polish), and "This is M for mama". Then I added "B is for babcia" (grandma), and "D is for dziadek" (grandpa). Then, Pieter and Robin, K.'s best friends, joined the group, representing the letters P and R, respectively. 

This worked beautifully! K. learned many letters in the shortest of time, and I was so proud of her! And then she also wanted her daddy to teach her letter. And this is where the difficulties started.

Because, the fact that something can have two names is one thing. But that the names for that thing can start with two different letters is another thing altogether. Because K. pointed at "T" and said "Papa". And "Papa" does not start with a T. "Tata" does. We were all very confused. 

We set out to find a solution, and then we found one: we were going to put together a list of all the words that mean the same thing and start with the same letter in both languages.That wasn't easy. It was hard to find such words because Polish and German are very different. Then it often happened that words were pronounced the same way, but the spelling was different, take "Giraffe/żyrafa and Computer/komputer as an example. 

Other things were easy, like names: (R)obin, (P)ieter, (O)li, (W)itek, (E)nder, (D)aniel. Some animals also came in handy: Löwe/lew, Tiger/tygrys. Easy! So were technology and instruments: (A)uto, helikopter/Hubschrauber, Gitarre/gitara. Some words were more difficult: What about „I“? „Instrument“? Too abstract. „Internet“? How do you explain that to a 2-year old?

This problem only got more complicated when K. showed me a "V" in a Dutch book. There is no "V" in the Polish alphabet. I knew the answer, of course: „V“ is for „Vater“ (father), and for „Vogel“ (bird) and there are many others. But, as we follow the OPOL (One Parent, One Language) method, I wanted to keep the alphabets seperate as well. Again, I thought of a solution, and then found one: „K.“- I told her- „This is Daddy's letter". She understood, and  went to her daddy, so he could teach her all about the letter "P".

It seems logical to us that, if there are mom's and dad's langauges, there should be "mom's and dad's letters, right? Therefore, my husband is responsible for : „V, X, Q, ß, ä, ö, ü“ and I take care of the weird Polish letters „ą, ę, ć, ł, ń, ó, ś, ż and ź“. 

For now, we have solved this problem. But I keep asking myself questions that require answers. For example, some sounds are pronounced differently in Polish and German. The Germans pronounce their„O's“ and „E's“ in a long, closed way, while in the Polish language those vowels are kept short and open ("oh")- in German as opposed to the Polish "O" that is similar to the "O" in the word "oven".

We also have to think when to teach K. (and later J.) to read and write. According to Tracey Tokuhama- Espinosa, children should not learn to read and write in 2 languages at the same time if those language use the same alphabet. But this is the case in Polish, German and Dutch. So, the question remains: Polish and German come before or after Dutch? And in what order? 

I wouldn't be asking myself all those questions if I had monolingual children. But multilingualism and multiliteracy (the ability to read and write in many languages) go hand in hand. And putting those two things together makes a lot of sense but is not easy.

On the other hand, it is exciting to follow K's language development. She makes progress, and she can talk about things in a way that blows my mind, although her vocabulary is still rather limited. So I hope that while she makes progress with speaking, she will make progress with reading and writing as well- in her own time. I am excited that she shows interest in letters at all!

Update: I wrote this almost a year ago. In the meantime, many things have changed. K. is becoming more and more vocal. She has learned many more letters, and almost knows the whole alphabet, just because she considers learning it to be fun. She sees letters everywhere (a zigzag is a "M" for mama to her, and any oval shape is an 'O" for Oli- her uncle). Also, I have noticed how worried and scholarly I sound in this post. Thankfully, I have long ago reminded myself that the goal now is not to teach her reading and writing right  (have I mentioned that she is almost 3?), but helping her to become familiar with shapes, and sounds of letters. She can now recognise simple words: Mama, her own name, her sister's name, the titles of her favourite poems. And for an almost 3 year old, that is awesome, and more than I could ever imagine!

How did you teach your child to read and write in many languages? I'll be happy to read about your experiences!

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