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Friday, 16 August 2013

A Very Special Friday with Eowyn of On Raising Bilingual Children

When I first attended Eowyn's workshop at the Little Kid Info Fair 2011, I was impressed by and fascinated about what she had to say about bilingualism. She really has great knowledge of this topic! She is also one of the fiercest bilingualism advocates I know. I was very honoured when Eowyn agreed to take part in this series and wrote this great post.  While I would say that focusing on the baby phase as the most crucial is somewhat extreme because it doesn't acknowledge the fact that we learn our whole lives, but if you have ever wondered, just like me, how to talk to that little creature that only cries and poops. well here are some great tips.

BFLA: How important is early input?

A common question for parents raising kids with two languages is how early is it necessary to start? The answer is that it is never too early to start talking to your baby, and to concentrate on providing good quality language input. In fact, at birth, a baby can recognize and respond to his/her mother’s language, so they are listening even before they are born!

The first year of life (some researchers even say the first six months!) is critical for language acquisition. Babies spend the first year of life figuring out and classifying which sounds are important for meaning in the languages they are exposed to regularly.  For bilingual babies, this means that they need to get enough input from both parents, not just from the primary caregiver.

However, it isn’t always easy for parents to figure out *how* to speak to this little baby, who does not respond in any meaningful way. I often call the first weeks/months of life the “potted plant” stage. They don’t do much except accept (or demand!) care – feed them, water them, keep them clean. For a parent who is a “talker” it’s not hard to provide a baby with adequate amounts of “infant-directed speech” (IDS), which is the building block for language acquisition. But for a parent who is not naturally verbose, it’s important to develop good techniques and habits to ensure that your baby gets ”enough” of your language.  And then, it’s important to ensure that your baby gets the right kind of input as well. There are certain aspects of IDS that are crucial to language acquisition, so it’s not as simple as just “talking a lot”. 

Here are some of the main criteria for IDS:

-          Exaggerated pitch and tone
-          Specific linguistic content: simplified and familiar words
-          Repetition (night night)
-          Specific patterns of input

Most parents fall naturally into IDS when they interact with their babies, it’s the way humans speak to infants in their care. And the basic patterns of IDS give babies exactly what they need for acquiring language. Not only is the speech type designed to be accessible, but it is also designed to be repetitive. Babies acquire language by engaging in a complex series of statistical calculations, to do with the sounds and meanings of each language.  These statistical analyse become more and more accurate as they are exposed to more examples of language to analyse. So for this aspect of language acquisition, “enough” is very important.

The best way for babies to maximize their learning is through social interactions; they pay more attention to people who care for them, and the more they pay attention, the more they learn. So appropriate IDS cannot come from just anybody, and it certainly can’t come from a computer program, or a DVD (sorry Baby Einstein). The people who are most important in this process are the parents, and secondarily, caregivers and extended family. So, for the parent who is “not a talker”, the task at hand is greater – you must become a talker, to allow your baby to access your language fully.

In my experience, fathers are more likely to struggle with this, and also fathers are more likely to spend less time with their small babies due to work hours, which is not a good combination. The task for fathers passing on a minority language then, is ever greater. So, what’s a guy to do? Here are some suggestions to help the less talkative parent succeed in their linguistic role:

-          Create linguistic routines every morning and every evening, focusing on daily activities
-        Practice being a commentator on your own life – it may not be football, but it’s interesting to your baby
-          Spend time reading (every day) and interacting with books with your baby. Read the words, talk about the pictures, ask questions – and then answer them yourself until your baby can do it for you
-      Find a toy that you can bear to play with every day, and use it to interact with your baby about concepts such as colour, movement and sound
-     Use children’s rhymes or songs to encourage basic intonations and repetitive phases. If you don’t remember then from your childhood, get some CDs…

The bottom line is, every parent must find ways to engage in meaningful linguistic communication with their baby, for the purposes of language acquisition. But it’s even more important in bilingual families, where each parent is responsible for passing on one language, and so rather than sharing the job, each parent is working alone. If you are passing on a minority language to your baby, and are struggling to be a “talker”, keep in mind how important these weeks and months are for your baby’s ultimate attainment in your language, and act accordingly. 

Eowyn Crisfield is a Canadian-educated expert in teaching English as a second/foreign language, teacher-training and bilingualism, with a BA in TESL/TEFL and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Concordia University. Over the last 19 years she has lived and worked in France, the US and the Netherlands. Since 2003, she has specialised in the area of parent and teacher education for bilingualism.
Eowyn is a strong supporter of early bilingualism, and believes that all parents, especially expats, should understand the advantages of bilingualism and best practice for raising bilingual children. For parents who move abroad, or who move often, it is important to understand the linguistic and social consequences of the language choices we make for our children.  Eowyn has innovated a family-language planning system that helps families plan for successful bilingualism for their children, from birth to university, taking into account a variety of life situations. Check out Eowyn's blog on bilingualism!

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  1. Nice post of Eowyn, thanks for this special Friday topic! I also talked up a storm with my first born, but now with my second one it's harder to give him more focused "baby appropriate input" as I feel I am constantly talking to my older (not the same, obviously..). Reading this reminds me to spend more IDS "quality" time with No 2, so thanks for that! I also read the study that babies can recognize their mother tongue right after birth - now I wondered if my first and second born have different mother tongues as I basically just started speaking my native language, German, again when our first son was born - during pregnancy no 1 I only spoke English. Who knows which my first son's mother tongue is? ;-)

    1. Hi Ilva! Thanks for commenting, and I am happy to present htis great post to all of you. My experiences were actually totally reversed- I struggled to talk to my eldest (who wanted me to stop talking an dlet her just learn to walk in peace), I also didn't use baby language, just talked normally. It didn't help much, I'm affraid. I am talking a lot to my little girl who is very verbal (and slightly slower to walk), and the fact that I talk more with my eldest helps, too because her younger sister can now listen to our conversations and often repeats what she's hearing from us. It depends on the child as well, and how she's reacting to your talking to him or her. As for siblings and language preferences, yes they could have different languages preferences, because you used different languages with them. This is why I prefer the term "family languages" rather than "mother tongues".

  2. These are very wise, well-stated thoughts. For parents seeking to raise a bilingual child, their efforts through the early years have a crucial impact on all the years that come after.

    Thank you for this, Eowyn (and Olga)!

    1. Hi Adam, thanks for your insighful comment. Eowyn is indeed a very wise person and she is so passionate it really inspires me! I think this post is very helpful for all raising bilingual children!


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