Monday, February 8, 2010

When to Worry if a Child Has Too Few Words

Diane Paul, American Speech and Language Hearing Association (ASHA) Director of Clinical Issues in Speech-Language Pathology, is quoted in the New York Times regarding when to refer children for a speech and language evaluation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The World’s 10 Most Influential Languages

I found the following information very interesting!
In 1997, George Weber created a list of the world’s 10 most influential languages. In order to come up with this list, Weber first determined that the following languages are the most spoken in the world. The numbers in parenthesis indicate the number of native speakers for each language.
1. Mandarin Chinese (1.1 billion)
2. English (330 million)
3. Spanish (300 million)
4. Hindi/Urdu (250 million)
5. Arabic (200 million)
6. Bengali (185 million)
7. Portuguese (160 million)
8. Russian (160 million)
9. Japanese (125 million)
10. German (100 million)
11. Punjabi (90 million)
12. Javanese (80 million)
13. French (75 million)
Then Weber figures out the number of second language speakers for each language and added that number to the number of native speakers, and he came up with the following results.
1. Mandarin Chinese (1.12 billion)
2. English (480 million)
3. Spanish (320 million)
4. Russian (285 million)
5. French (265 million)
6. Hindi/Urdu (250 million)
7. Arabic (221 million)
8. Portuguese (188 million)
9. Bengali (185 million)
10. Japanese (133 million)
11. German (109 million)
Weber then looked at the number of countries that officially speak each language in his list.
1. English (115)
2. French (35)
3. Arabic (24)
4. Spanish (20)
5. Russian (16)
6. German (9)
7. Mandarin (5)
8. Portuguese (5)
9. Hindi/Urdu (2)
10. Bengali (1)
11. Japanese (1)
After weighing six factors (number of primary speakers, number of secondary speakers, number and population of countries where used, number of major fields using the language internationally, economic power of countries using the languages, and socio-literary prestige), Weber compiled the following list of the world's ten most influential languages. The numbers in parenthesis indicate the number of points given by Weber to each language when weighing the six factors.
1. English (37)
2. French (23)
3. Spanish (20)
4. Russian (16)
5. Arabic (14)
6. Chinese (13)
7. German (12)
8. Japanese (10)
9. Portuguese (10)
10. Hindi/Urdu (9)
Initially I was thinking Chinese was the language to learn! I wished I had paid more attention to French in high school.
This is definitely a good list to keep in mind when thinking about learning a second language!
George Weber. Top Languages: The World’s 10 Most Influential Languages. Language Today; Vol. 2, Dec 1997.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why does a child learn a language so easily?

Why does a child learn a language so easily?

I believe that independently from the brain developing, a young child learns multiple languages easier because he or she applies the same strategies to this endeavor that he or she applies to learning the home language.

My sister, who lives in Costa Rica, called me the other day to give me a report of my 3 year old nephew’s new goal in life. He has decided that he wants to learn English. He already speaks Spanish at a 4 old level. He is also interested in learning Hebrew. A few months ago he would ask people how to say words in English. Lately, my nephew has been telling his parents “let’s Speak English” (he says it in English). When my sister talks to him in Spanish he says “Mother, speak English only!!!”

What my sister describes, he does go as follows: He will start “pretending” he is speaking English. He uses the English intonation of words and phonetic sounds. Then he adds words he already knows in English to his jargon. He also uses a few phrases he has already learned from books and videos. The important thing is that he is convinced that he speaks English!!!

That is exactly the same way a young child learns his or her first language. During the first year, he or she listens to sounds and words around him or her while discovering the vocal track. During this time, the child responds to the intonation of words more than to the meaning of words. After he or she learns to “babble” and duplicate syllables, the child starts to use jargon. Jargon is when a child can pretty much have a conversation with another person but not necessarily use “true” words. The listener knows that the child is saying something because he or she uses the language pattern and intonation of the language but not necessarily the words. The listener probably cannot understand the words but can follow the conversation thanks to the context and gestures. The listener is delighted to be having a conversation with this child responds to it like he or she understands every word the little one says. This motivates the child to continue trying and practicing. As time passes by, this jargon gets more and more refined and real words start to emerge every day. By age two the child already can understand over 500 hundred words and says 25 to 50. After age 2, the child learns to put words together in phrases (staring with 2-word phrases). By age 3, the child pretty much can have a conversation where 70% of what he or she says is intelligible.

A young child is successful at learning multiple languages because he or she:

• Has the desire and the motivation. The child needs to find the way to communicate his or her needs or the world will pass him or her by. My nephew wants to learn English because he loves to come to Dallas and visit with relatives. He is also exposed to English in videos, games and books. Learning English is cool for him!
• Is willing to make mistakes and continues to try. A child is not concerned about a “grade”. A child does not stop trying because he or she is misunderstood, or because people make fun of what he or she says. When a child stops trying then there is usually a problem. As a speech pathologist when a parent tells me that the child has stopped trying to communicate, and I get very concerned.
• Is not worried about how long it will take to master the language. To be fluent in a language it takes time. A child does not focus on the final goal. He or she enjoys the process. It is about having fun and discovering new words and the rules of language.
• Listens first and then tries. A child first listens and then starts talking. It is common for a child that is introduced to a new language to go through a silent period before he or she is ready to speak the language. This silent period can last a few days to several weeks. It depends on the child. If the problem persists for more than 3 to 6 months or if the child shows changes in behavior consult with a speech pathologist or pediatrician.
• Repeats what he or she hears. We all know how careful we need to be when we talk in front of a child. If we do not want the child to repeat it, we had better not say it!
• Does not rely on translation. A young child does not usually compartmentalize languages separately. A child can learn multiple words for an object in different languages (it is like learning synonyms). He or she does not think in one language before saying what he or she is thinking in another language. This strategy makes the child cognitively more efficient when thinking about language because he or she does not have to do the mental work of translating.

Children that are developing their first language already have the key to learn more than one language.

As adults we do not need to teach children how to use the language, but we can be facilitators of the languages we want them to learn. In order to be a facilitator, you can follow the following strategies:

• Surround the child with the language or languages you want him or her to learn and opportunities to learn those languages. Remember that in order to learn a language the child needs to be exposed to that language at least 30% of the awaking hours.
• Let this be a natural experience where the child can explore and use all of his or her senses to learn like he or she does when learning the first language.
• Follow the child’s lead or interest. A child is usually more interested to participate and learn when the activity is something he or she wants to do. Watch what your child is doing and join him or her in the activity. Do what he or she is doing and add words to the activity.
• Create the need to use the language. Motivation is the number 1 component for learning any task. The child needs to have a reason to want to use the language.
• Label for the child his surroundings and describe what is going on while using the target language. Children and adults learn to understand first. Once understanding of the language is on its way comes the task of learning to express one self. Talking cannot happen without understanding first.
• Have fun! Learning is always easier when fun is involved because facilitates attention to the task and makes the child want to be involved in the activity. The more fun the child is having the longer he or she will stay on the task and the more opportunities, there will be for learning.
• Relax and take a break! Things do not always work as planned. Tomorrow will be another day full of opportunities for your child to learn.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Strategies for teaching your child more than one language

1. Agree on raising your child with 2 or more languages.
Both parents need to agree in order to be successful in this endeavor.

2. Know what to expect and when.
Educate yourself on what this process implies and be ready to act. This is not a simple task, and you need to educate yourself in order for the process to be successful. What to do if the child is lagging in one language? What to do, if the child presents a language impairment? Why does my child seem to understand everything in the minority language but does not want to speak? What do I say to relatives who do not agree with teaching my child, more than one language?

3. Determine how many languages and why you want your child to learn them.
Research indicates that a child needs to be involved in that language for at least 30% of the waking hours in order to learn it. More than 2 or 3 languages is not going to be a successful endeavor.
Do you want your child to learn a certain language in order to teach him or her, your ancestor’s culture? Do you want him or her to learn a second language because you value the benefits of knowing more than one language? Do you live in a community where more and more people speak another language different from the language spoken by the main stream community? Do you believe that knowing a specific language will benefit your child socially and professionally in the future?

4. Decide on a language teaching system.
How are you going to teach your child? Two popular systems used by many parents are One Person One Language (OPOL) and Minority Language at Home (ML@H).

OPOL is a popular system where each parent speaks a different language to the child. For instance, Mom speaks German and Dad English. I had a college friend that grew up speaking English to her Dad and Spanish to her Mom. She used to tell me that when she was little she thought all dads in the world spoke English and all moms spoke Spanish. It was not confusing for her! She thought it was a natural thing. She told me that when she realized that was not the case, she felt very proud to be “bilingual”.
ML@H is a system where the minority language is used at home and the child is immersed into the majority language through everyday activities outside the home. For example, the child learns Russian at home and English at school.

In order to be successful, it is important to select a system that the family can stick to. It is also important to make sure the child is stimulated in all the languages. As with any monolingual child, having diverse experiences with language is critical for adequate language development. Bilingual children, as well as monolingual children, need to be spoken to and read to all the time. They benefit from frequent modeling and fun play activities where their vocabularies can expand.

5. Do not wait until later.
Start now!!! Now is the ideal time. Remember that the baby’s brain is optimal for learning languages during the first 3 years of life. If your child is older, it is not too late. All you need is a plan and the intentions to follow through.

6. Declare your intentions and have a plan.
Even before your baby is born start preparing yourself for this task. You can start using both languages while pregnant! Research indicates that babies can discriminate sounds and voices since they are in the bound.

My cousin in Boston has 3 kids, and she used the OPOL system ever since her first child was born. She speaks Spanish to her kids and her husband speaks English to them. She prepared herself for this task by buying story books in Spanish and reading to her kids in Spanish since they were first born. Although she says it is not easy, she is always looking for ways to have her kids immersed in Spanish.

7. Establish a support network.
Look for support groups and friends with similar interest. Parent groups can help you stick to your plan.

It has now become more popular to have daycare centers that offer a second language immersion program in the community. In the U.S. public schools are also beginning to offer “dual language programs” for English monolingual children and children with another primary language different from English. In these programs, half of the day is spent in the classroom using English and the other half of the day is spent using the minority language that is prevalent in the community. For instance in Houston and Bryan Texas, English and Spanish speaking students attend the same dual language classroom. The English speaking children are learning Spanish and the Spanish speaking children are learning English. Each group of children supports the other in their efforts to learn a new language. This type of setting teaches children respect for other cultures. It allows all children to be empowered by the cultural and linguistic knowledge that each group brings to the classroom.

8. Obtain relevant materials.
Books, videos and songs in the languages you are teaching your child are great ways to bring the language to your child through meaningful activities. The internet also offers great ideas.

9. Set goals but be flexible.
You might find obstacles along the way. It is okay if you need to modify your plan.

10. Be patient and keep going.
The process of teaching more than one language can be difficult, and may present obstacles. As children grow older, they are more interested in using the primary language in the community (usually the language spoken at school). Kids do not want to be different, and they look for approval from their peers.

It is natural for children to want to speak the language they use at school. Cognitively it is much easier to continue using the language they used for 7 or 8 hours at school than to switch to new language.

Be ready to encounter these obstacles and find creative ways to overcome the problems. Traveling for the summer to a country where the minority language is spoken is a great way to compensate for this problem. If traveling is not an option, look for summer programs in your community where your child can be immersed in the minority language. Of all the bilingual adults that I have met, no one seems to be sorry for knowing 2 or more languages. Quite the contrary, most of them are glad they do and make efforts to perfect the language as they get older.

Following these strategies does not have to be perfect. The important thing is to have a basic plan to follow with your intentions and to have fun connecting with your child along the way!

For further information go to:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Types of Language Learners

Individuals can be either sequential or simultaneous language learners. The purpose of this blog is to describe the differences between sequential and simultaneous language learners.

Sequential Language Learners
Sequential language learners are those individuals that learn one language first and second or more languages after the first language have been established (usually after age three). An example of a sequential language learner is a child that learns Spanish at home as an infant and learns English once he/she goes off to school. Individuals that move to a new country and learn a new language are also sequential language learners.

Simultaneous Language Learners
Simultaneous language learners are those individuals that learned 2 or more languages at the same time. Simultaneous language learners are usually those individuals that grew up with 2 or more languages at home. This process occurs during infancy while the child is learning language for the first time. Most of the time, these children have at least one parent that speaks more than one language and/or lives in a community where more than one language is spoken. For example, the child has a nanny that speaks a different language with him or her.

Which learning type is best?
Young children can learn multiple languages easily because their brains are wired to do so. Young children’s brains are forming and characterized by plasticity that makes learning easier. Within ages 0 to 3 most children learn the basics of the language or languages present in their environment. At age 3, most children are able to communicate successfully in the language or languages used at home. After age 3, children continue to learn a language, but it is more about learning new vocabulary, expanding the complexity of their sentences and ideas and improving the pronunciation of sounds and words. Since the brain is open to acquire languages at an early age, simultaneous language learning is ideal.

This does not mean that learning languages in a sequential manner is not a good idea. Preschool and school age children continue to develop their brains, and they can easily learn a second language as well. Their brains continue to show high degrees of plasticity, which allows them to learn easily. The best example of sequential language learners is children that attend a second language immersion program where they learn a new language. In these immersion programs, typically all the school activities take place in the second language that the children are learning. The children are exposed to the new language all day while at school. When the children go home, they continue to speak the language spoken at home and/or the community. These children are usually successful at learning a second language because they are exposed to that language a significant amount of time each day. They are also successful because they are learning the new language the same way they learned the first language, through everyday meaningful activities.

Adults, on the other hand, do not have the same brain plasticity that children do. This makes learning a second language a harder task. In Spanish, there is a popular saying that refers to this issue, “Loro Viejo no aprende a hablar”/ “An old parrot does not learn to talk”. Although this saying is not 100% true, it is harder for adults to learn a second language because their brains do not have the plasticity and flexibility to do so. For instance, adult brains cannot perceive foreign language sounds not present in their language as easy as the brains of children can.

Either way of language learning, sequential or simultaneous, takes a strong commitment in order to be successful in the endeavor of raising bilingual children. It also takes having the desire and the interest to learn a new language on the part of the learner. Parents that make the commitment to teach their children more than one language and stick to this commitment are giving their children a cultural and linguistic gift that will probably open unimaginable opportunities in the future for their children. I can assure you, all the hard work and effort will be worth it at the end!