Children. Learning The Second Language
Children. One key finding of the Snow, Dickinson, and Tabors research is that children have better communication skills when they grow up surrounded by rich and meaningful language experiences. What about children who are non-English speakers? Catherine Snow worries about the children who are deprived of rich language experiences in their native languages during this time. She says:
The possibility exists that [non-English speakers] could be better spending their time expanding their first language, getting a really strong language base in the first language, and postponing the learning of English somewhat. And it would be nice to know whether it would be better for these children to be in first-language preschools or in English-language preschools, in terms of what they’re going to do in second, third, and fourth grade later on.
She knows that nonnative English speakers will need to speak, read, and write well in English during elementary school, but she questions the timing and approach. There are some other common wisdom assumptions that Snow now knows are incorrect: The evidence clearly demonstrates that there is no critical period for second-language learning. Snow reports that there’s no drop-off in the ability to learn a second language and that older and younger learners make similar mistakes when learning a second language, suggesting that they’re using similar cognitive processes. Younger children don’t necessarily learn a second language more easily than older children. Snow notes that older learners actually have some advantages. Children learning the second language.
They can apply learning strategies and literacy skills from the language they already know. And, of course, learning a second language depends on the context. For example, younger learners typically learn a language by full immersion in the language. That sink-or-swim approach helps them become more fluent (as it would help older children, too). Nevertheless, younger children who have these experiences often lose their first language in the process, and that is an extremely regrettable loss. As Linda Espinosa, an expert on bilingualism, says, we tend to see bilingualism as a problem, but it is really an asset, particularly in the global world of today and tomorrow. Janet Werker points to other assumptions that are not true: Infants growing up in bilingual families don’t get confused by hearing two languages. Bilingual babies can even tell the difference between two languages using only visual clues. Using the “preferential looking” procedure that I’ve mentioned a number of times in this chapter, Whitney Weikum, an alumna of Werker’s doctoral program, exposed English-French bilingual babies to a person on a television screen speaking English—with the sound turned off—until the babies became bored. Children learning the second language.
When that screen person switched to French—still with the sound turned off, the babies perked up and looked longer again, indicating that they recognized that the mouth movements were different in French than in English. This was true at four months and at eight months. Werker notes that bilingual children might engage in occasional code switching—using a word in one language when speaking the other language—but that doesn’t indicate confusion. Bilingual children do not experience delayed language development. According to Werker, there is no evidence that children from bilingual families have more or fewer delays or language disabilities than other children. She says:
In fact, the incidence of language delay and language disability in the bilingual population is virtually identical to what it is in the monolingual population.
However, she does point out that the process of language acquisition may differ in small but important ways between bilingual and monolingual children:
At about one and a half years of age up to three or four, the total vocabulary size of a bilingual child is equivalent to a monolingual child, but in a bilingual child, it’s divided across two languages. In the early stages of [language] acquisition, the bilingual child’s vocabulary is probably not as large in each of their languages as a monolingual child’s. Is this a delay? We don’t think so. We think it’s a difference. Sometimes it can appear that [bilingual children] are getting confused for a period of time, but [they’re engaged in] a more difficult task. A bilingual baby has to keep track of two sets of sounds simultaneously and set up categories in each. So if it does end up taking them a little bit longer, it’s okay. Ultimately what they have is two sound systems, two vocabularies, and two sets of syntactic rules.
How Children Move From Learning The Tools Of Language And Literacy To Using Those Tools To Communicate
Language and literacy are the tools we use to communicate, but they’re only tools. One can be very literate but be a terrible communicator—and it takes two to communicate, as this all too familiar story from a mother reveals. I am sorry to say that I think my husband is lacking in the communication department. I find this amazing, because he manages a business with over fifty employees and it is his job to help others communicate and problem-solve. When he comes home, it seems he shuts that switch off. Just this morning we had an incident.
I usually take my son to and from day care, but today my husband was doing the shuttling. I got up first—I let our three dogs out, fed them, fed the cat, made the baby his bottle, ironed a shirt for my husband, changed the baby’s diaper, and dressed him. My husband proceeds to go into the bathroom to get ready, leaving me to feed a crying, hungry baby. Needless to say, I got upset and yelled that I needed to leave for work, too—I was late. He responded that if that was the case, I was not communicating—I was simply assuming he would know this. It was my fault. I’ve accepted that we both need to work on talking—since he feels it is my fault and I feel it is his fault. Children learning the second language.
Suggestion 1: Create An Environment At Home Where Words, Reading, And Listening Are Important.
In order to promote literacy and communication skills, we must exercise them ourselves. Children learn what they see and live. In retrospect, I see that this is something that my mother did very well. She was always interested in new ideas and new information right up until the end of her life, at almost ninety-eight years. In fact, two months before she died, we used a quote of hers on my organization’s holiday card: “If you stop learning, you stop living.” My childhood home was filled with books, which Mother treasured and which my sister and I treasure now. Before I could read, I remember poring over a book of Russian fairy tales with pictures embossed in glossy colors—gold, purple, and royal blue.
They sparkled and were just as fanciful as the stories themselves when I was old enough to hear them. Mother was always reading and talking with us about what she was reading. In the days before book reviews were posted on the Internet and everywhere else, she had a mutually beneficial arrangement with the owner of the local bookstore. Because he couldn’t read every new book but knew his customers would expect him to “provide reviews,” he enlisted my mother as a reader. Every few days she would return a book she had finished, share her opinion with the bookstore owner, and pick up the next one. Children learning the second language.
Reading was so important to her that the book club she belonged to before she died now bears her name. I remember Mother reading anything and everything: the print on the cereal box if she was waiting for her coffee to brew, the ads in the local paper for dogs for sale—everything. And I remember dinner table discussions often being about books we were reading—a tradition I continued with my children. A love of language, of literature, and of the world it can bring to our imaginations is contagious. I caught it from my mother and am happy to have passed it on to my children and others.
Suggestion 2: Narrate Your Children’s Experiences With Parent-Talk, Parent-Look, And Parent-Gesture.
Talk to your child from the moment of birth on. Think of yourself as a sports announcer, giving a play-by-play description of what is happening: “Oh, you just woke up. Are you hungry?” But, as I’ve said, be sensitive to the times when the kids want to tune out. Use parent-talk with very young children. The music of the sound, the variation in pitch, and the slowed-down speech help infants begin to detect the words in the “sea of sound” that surrounds them. Use parent-look and parent-gesture. If you want your child to pay attention to something, look at it and point to it. Children learning the second language.
Name what you’re looking at. “Look, Ana, there is a bird. It is flying high in the sky.” Remember, children are more likely to remember words if you put them at the end of the sentence or if the words follow their names. Catherine Snow points out that the best talk with toddlers is “simple, concrete, repetitive, and responsive.” Elaborate your child’s communication. Whether it’s a grunt, a babble, a point, or a word, say more when you respond to your child. “You said Ma-ma. Where is Ma-ma? She is over there. Let’s go see her.” Use familiar words again and again.
Children will be more likely to remember words they hear often: “Where’s your nose?” “Where’re your toes?” Play games. Peekaboo and pat-a-cake are wonderful word games. Our favorite game with Philip came from his once opening the door to a room and saying, “No buv-de d’ere,” meaning “Nobody’s there.” We made that into a family game and always opened doors to rooms, closets, and cabinets, asking, “Who’s there?” He would respond with his refrain: “No buv-de d’ere.” Use familiar words in new ways. Roberta Golinkoff says:
Think about how many meanings we have for the word “run.” You could say, “Mommy’s running,” “the dog is running,” “the stocking is running,” “my nose is running,” “my temperature is running high.”
As your children move into the preschool years, give old words new meanings. Use new words. Remember Catherine Snow’s findings that children who were better at communicating had parents and teachers who used more sophisticated words. I remember that Lara as a little girlwould often say, “That’s interesting.” Finally she asked, “What’s interesting?” (She would have said “What does interesting mean?” but she didn’t know the word “mean” yet.) Use nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Children learn nouns first, but you can introduce them to verbs and adjectives by elaborating what they’re saying. When they point to a neighbor’s dog, you can say, “That fluffy white dog is named Marshmallow. He loves to run into mud puddles, and then he isn’t so white or fluffy anymore.”
Suggestion 3: Use “Extra Talk” And Talk That Goes Beyond The Here And Now.
In their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young Children, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found, on the basis of an observational study of forty-two diverse parents and children at nine months of age and continuing through thirty-six months, that parents use two different types of language in talking with their children. One is business talk—such as “Stop that,” “Do this,” or “Come here”—that expresses the adult’s needs. This language is matter-of-fact, direct, and doesn’t involve many words. The other is extra talk—where parents talk about “what if,” “remember,” and “what do you think,” or use other words that respond to, elaborate, and extend what their children are doing or saying. Children learning the second language.
This rich talk, employing a large vocabulary, is a part of the connection (or social “dance,” as they call it) between parent and child, and it conveys meaning and intellectual ideas. Hart and Risley found that this extra talk has a very high correlation with children’s performance on IQ tests at three years of age and with their performance on achievement tests in the third grade. When the researchers compared the relative importance of children’s socioeconomic status, their ethnic background, and the extra talk they experienced, they found that only the extra talk made a difference in children’s academic success.
Suggestion 4: Tie Your Talk In To What Is Interesting To Children.
Roberta Golinkoff’s research has shown that babies are most likely to learn the names of things that they find interesting, but as they gain the ability to take others’ perspectives, they can learn what others like as well. She says:
At twelve months of age, babies learn words mostly from their own perspective. If they like an object and they hear the name for it, they will learn it—but if you try to teach them the name for a boring object, it’s very unlikely that they will learn its name. By nineteen months, they can overcome their admiration for a particular object and learn the name even for a boring object.
Many children have what Judy DeLoache of the University of Virginia and her colleagues call “extremely intense interests”—which they define as a long-lasting passionate interest in a category of objects or activities. They describe the story of a baby who was drawn to the globe light hanging over his changing table, which evolved into a passion for balls of all kinds. Philip had that kind of interest in music from as early as I can remember.
At three, he would ask for his drum as soon as he woke up. I recorded the following conversation in a book I wrote at the time, so this is not revisionist history. He said: “I want to play my drum. I’m going to have a band, Mommy. Where’s my drum?” Several decades—and a doctorate in ethnomusicology—later, he plays percussion professionally and is the director of a music and dance performance group. Music was his “lemonade stand,” my metaphor for something children care passionately about. Children’s interests are the launching pads for building communication skills.
Suggestion 5: Tell Stories About Your Life And Ask Your Children To Tell Stories About Theirs.
Stories are what bind us together; they are what tell us that we are part of a family or community. They convey our traditions and our favorite memories. We always told stories when I was growing up; West Virginia retained that southern tradition. Someone walking by my grandmother’s porch would stop to talk, and that would launch a story stretching back generations. I felt that stories were a key to unlocking the realities of the grown-up world. In my family, we have traditional stories, but my children’s favorites are the ones that set me off on uncontrollable laughing sprees. Among those is the story about how their uncle Bill had installed a computer device in his home to tell him if anything was going wrong.
One day—when something did go wrong—Bill was away from his desk and the computer call went into the switchboard of the bank where he worked. It kept redialing and saying, “The water temperature is…” By the time Bill returned to his desk, the central authorities of the bank had been called in to deal with what they thought was a hoax, but it was only “Oscar,” as we had named his computer device. Or there’s the story about how I once tried to order lemon sherbet in French (citron), but I actually ordered a car (Citroën). Dorothy Strickland suggests taking children to interesting places (like the zoo) and then having them retell the story of the visit. She says:
I say kids who are taken places—and I’m not talking about exotic places—are lucky kids!
Suggestion 6: Read, Read, And Read Some More With Your Child.
Study after study finds that reading with children is a powerful force in their lives and a pathway to better communication skills. Catherine Snow explains why:
Books do something that a pile of toys on the floor doesn’t do. [If] you have a two-year-old child, you [are likely to] say, “Go play.” The toys are for the child. But the book is clearly something that adults have to help children appreciate.
Snow’s point is essential—books provide a forum for a focused conversation. Learning is powerfully enhanced when children and parents are paying attention to the same thing. Researchers call this joint attention.Remember the gombie experiment where babies learned language better when the adult served as a vector for the child’s attention: looking at, pointing at, and naming an object. Books offer the ideal opportunity for parent-look, parent-gesture, and parent-speak. When a colleague heard about the importance of reading to children, he thought that the right thing to do was to read as many books a night as possible to his preschooler. But it’s your attitude and approach, not quantity, that matter. Children learning the second language.
If reading is a chore for you, it will seem like a chore for your children. If it’s a joyful activity, it will be joyful to them. Even if you just get through the first page of a book but you’ve had a great conversation, you’ve given your child a great reading experience. Here are some of the things you can do with books. With infants and toddlers: Get books that young children can’t harm when they put them in their mouths—heavy cardboard books, laminated books, or cloth books. Also get books featuring things children can do. That’s whyPat the Bunny is a classic. Many of us remember patting the soft bunny or feeling the scratchy face of the man in the book; now we can share these experiences with our children.
Point out the pictures. Judy DeLoache has found that very young children don’t comprehend that pictures stand for or represent something else. She and her colleagues found that nine-month-olds would actually try to lift the pictures off the page. They also tested fifteen- and eighteen-month-olds to see whether they could transfer new information from a picture in a book to the actual object or from the actual object to the picture. Children were shown pictures of objects they had never seen before (for example, a wire egg holder) with a made-up name (a blicket). They found that fifteen-month-olds could recognize the blicket if the drawing was realistic, but not in cartoon form, while eighteen-month-olds could recognize both the cartoon and the realistic versions.
The implication of this study is that if you want very young children to learn about new things (zebras, for example), realistic pictures work better than cartoon pictures. Get books with a catchy refrain that children can begin to remember, such as Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. As children get older, they love to shout out the refrains. Create traditions for family story time. In our family, until Philip and Lara were in the late school-age years, we had “special time” at bedtime, when each could select books to read with us. Know that reading with your child is what matters. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek collaborated with two graduate students on a study of traditional reading versus reading using electronic books (or e-books). As opposed to the interactive give-and-take when parents and children read together, they found:
The e-book is asking questions and demanding answers and the parent [is] left out of the picture. The child doesn’t look at the parent and the parent doesn’t get to ask a lot of questions. The parents are mostly saying, “Oh, push that button.” So [parents become] directors instead of engagers.
For school-age children: Make reading a family tradition. You can read stories aloud as a family; these times will become treasured memories. Select books that extend your children’s interests. When he was six, one child I know was interested in everything dinosaur. We got him dinosaur posters, books on dinosaurs ranging from reference books to stories, and plastic dinosaurs so that he could act out dramas with them. As Kathy Hirsh-Pasek says, “Books can take us to worlds well beyond their covers.” Help your children begin to read the books themselves when you sense they are ready to do so. In the beginning, they may memorize the words. If so, help them sound them out. You can play a game where you read one word and they read the next. Children learning the second language.
Suggestion 7: Play With Word Sounds.
You can communicate a love for word sounds from your child’s earliest years by singing and dancing together. As your child gets older, here are some games to help your child learn the beginnings of phonics. Play guessing games with the first letters of words. “I am looking for something in the market that begins with an a sound.” “Right, it’s apples!” “Your dog Betty Poochie’s name begins with a b sound. Who else in our family has a name that begins with that sound?” “Betsy!” Clap the syllables while you say the sounds. Beginning with your children’s names is always good. Phil-up (two claps), La-ra (two claps), and so on. But you can also use this technique for “I Spy” games: “I spy something in this room, and its name sounds like this,”and make one clap. If they can’t guess, give them another hint.
“It rhymes with hair.” “Yes, it’s a chair.” Help children begin to blend word sounds to make words. They can also play with taking away sounds. For example, “If Fred’s name didn’t have an F in it, what would it be?” “Red!” Play the alphabet game. Children think of words beginning with each letter of the alphabet and others have to guess the words. Give children reading assignments when you go shopping. One of mine was that my kids could select any cereal they wanted as long as sugar was listed after the fourth ingredient. When they were smaller, I gave them pictures of products to match and find on the shelf, like the label from the flour we use for our Sunday morning biscuits. Dorothy Strickland suggests making a marketing list and when you take something off the shelf, have the child cross it off the list. Play with tongue twisters. See if your child can say: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Use the nursery rhymes and stories from your own culture for these games.
Suggestion 8: Encourage Your Children To Write.
You can encourage writing long before your children know how to write, by taking dictation from them. When he was three, Philip became intrigued with clowns after seeing slightly scary clowns in a neighborhood Fourth of July parade. He did a series of clown drawings (which I still have—they are whimsical and wonderful). I always asked him what he wanted to say about the clowns. He would say a few words, which I would write down. My practice of making books for my children led Lara at age four to make her own books from construction paper stapled together (which I’ve kept, too). As she learned to write, she would write some of the letters herself. When children are getting interested in writing, they pretend to write by making squiggles on the page. These should be appreciated. You can ask, “What are you writing about?” Your children may want you to write the actual words beside their words, or they can write them, usually with their own invented spelling. Catherine Snow feels that invented spelling is beneficial because children have to listen very carefully to the word and stretch the sounds out to try to spell it. Children learning the second language.
One of the first words that most children learn to write is their own name. Write it for them at first, and then help them learn to write it themselves. Lara loved to write her name with different-colored Magic Markers. In addition to having the children keep journals, the elementary school my children attended did something else I think was a very good practice. They let the children use invented spelling in their journals, and then their “assignment” was to edit their stories. The teacher would underline misspelled words and grammar errors so that the children could correct their own work. They then wrote down the correctly spelled words and their definitions, making their own dictionaries. Their spelling quizzes were based on the words in their personal dictionaries. This technique taught my kids the rudiments of grammar and spelling without killing their joy in writing and communicating by endless drill and practice that disconnected writing from its basic purpose—to communicate.
Suggestion 9: Select Early Childhood Programs Where Communication Skills Are Emphasized.
The research of Snow, Dickinson, and Tabors has shown that teachers make a difference, especially when they engage in cognitively engaging talk, use more complex words when they talk with children, and plan their curriculum activities. Similarly, Janellen Huttenlocher from the University of Chicago conducted a study of more than three dozen preschools where she and her colleagues taped the language of the teacher and then evaluated the impact on the children. Children whose teachers used more complex language had higher comprehension levels.
Suggestion 10: Give Children Access To Many Forms Of Media Communication.
Painting, drawing, sculpture, collages, dancing, singing, playing instruments, making videos, taking photographs—all are crucial vehicles for communication. Many of the most groundbreaking contributions to human culture communicate in nonverbal form. We need to ensure that our children have access to many types of media to express themselves.
Suggestion 11: Continue To Promote The Skills Of Focus And Self Control.
Numerous activities you can do with your children are described in chapter 1, on focus and self control. In addition, you can do a variation on the “Simon Says, Do the Opposite” task discussed there by playing the Head-to-Toes Task described earlier in this chapter: If you say, “Touch your toes,” the children are to touch their heads; if you say, “Touch your head,” the children are to touch their toes.
Suggestion 12: Emphasize Effective Communication.
Children learning the second language. With school-age children, help them analyze their own and others’ communication. When they read something written by someone else, help them discuss how effective it is in communicating. What message do they think the author wanted to communicate? Is this message well communicated? Is it written too intellectually, or does it affect their feelings? Does that matter to them? If you know any writers, ask them to talk about their writing with your children. If your child has a favorite author, write a letter to him or her. I wrote to my favorite author when I was ten and she actually wrote back. That made a big difference in my life—it made me feel that writing a book was a goal I might someday be able to attain. Have children look at their own writing through the perspectives of others. What do they think their teacher will say about it? Their grandmother? Their friends? Why?
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