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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Lingering Effects of Culture

5 generations of Armenians (public domain photo)
In my last post, you might remember I mentioned reader Jennifer's concerns about having lost some of her cultural heritage, and her interest in reintroducing her language of heritage to her young son. With my own family having immigrated to this country in a time when it was deemed beneficial to lose all traces of the Old World and just blend in, this topic is near and dear to my heart.

Given Jennifer's concern, and my own story, I was very excited to come across this little tidbit while reading some continuing ed for my Speech Pathology license:

According to linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath out of Stanford University, it takes FIVE generations to remove cultural influences from our values and beliefs, and that is without nurturing the culture in question.

That's great news for Jennifer, who only gave up about ½ a generation of nurturing her culture. It is even good news for me, a third generation American, whose culture has not been nurtured at all for 3 generations. It's still in there. It is still a part of who I am, a part of how I view things, a part of my life paradigm.

With a little careful planning and purposeful pursuits (like the ones you see here at Open Wide the World), and maybe a few more trips to Europe, my family can reclaim the missing half of our cultural heritage. And so can Jennifer's. And yours!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Introducing a Second Language to Your Toddler... Even if You Aren't Bilingual

From early in the course of this nation's history (the U.S., that is), immigrants have either wanted to, or were often forced to, assimilate to the prevailing culture and language. While that trend seems to be slowly changing, generations of families have lost touch with their cultural and linguistic origins

Such is the case with reader Jennifer: when she was growing up, she was somewhat embarrassed to use her family's native language of Spanish, and preferred to speak English exclusively. Now an adult, she regrets that decision, and hopes to create a different language vision for her own young family.

Fortunately, in today's world of endless e-resources, it is becoming easier and easier to reconnect with one's roots.

But with all those millions of resources available, where does one even begin, as Jennifer asked, to introduce the language of heritage to a toddler? This question has as many answers as the number of people that you ask... so I'll just share where I began with Mag:


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Yes, you read that right: placemats. Three key elements will help explain placemats as my starting point to introduce foreign languages to my then-18-month-old daughter.

1) I knew from my studies in Speech-Language Pathology that second languages provide great cognitive benefits (here and here), so I was very excited to expose Mag to a second language, and

2) French is my first love, and is the language in which I am strongest, after English. So French is what I wanted to teach Mag... however,

3) This one was the kicker: I have absolutely no French language experience with anyone under the age of 13. Therefore, I don't know kids' vocabulary (like toy names) in French, or French story grammar (as in "and they lived happily ever after"), or many French "comptines" (nursery rhymes), or many French expressions used with children (like "faire dodo," kiddie slang for "to go night-night"). Basically, I didn't know any age-appropriate French to teach my daughter.

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And then one day, as we were sitting at the table for snack time, inspiration hit! On the table in front of Mag, covered in puffs and cheerios, was a placemat by Crocodile Creek, with pictures of animals.

In the sing-songy intonation of American "motherese," which I could only hope worked in French, too, I said, "Qui voudrait un cheerio?" (Who would like a cheerio?) And then I answered myself, still in sing-songiness, "Le cochon. Le cochon voudrait un cheerio." (The pig. The pig would like a cheerio.) And I set the snack on the pig. Then Mag ate it.

After a few rounds of that, I asked the question "Qui voudrait un cheerio?"... but this time I waited for Mag to choose an animal by pointing to it. I then said the animal's name in French, and gave it a cheerio.

Thanks, I'm sure, to the motivation of snacks, Mag quickly learned the M.O.:
  • mommy says "qui voudrait something-something," 
  • Mag points to an animal, 
  • Mommy says some word Mag has never heard before (the animal's name in French), 
  • then a treat appears by the animal Mag pointed to, 
  • and Mag gets to eat the treat.
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After mastering that routine, we added animal sounds to Mag's pointing, just so that she was verbalizing in the activity. Soon after, she began to repeat the animal name in French as I fed it, and eventually say the names on her own. (I'm telling you: snacks are super motivating!!!)

I began to feel as if the sky were the limit: we changed placemats to learn new animals, switched up the sentences ("Qui a faim?" Who is hungry?), used the routine with toys instead of placemats. You name it, if it was in my grown-up repertoire, we adapted it to a child's level.

 Sure, I still can't teach my daughter the typical vocabulary a French 5 year old uses. She will not become fully bilingual under my tutelage.
 photo b229fc42-2e03-42d0-a51e-e71445ea5488_zpsba883acf.jpg
playing at the park at Notre Dame, Paris

Nevertheless, she was completely comfortable playing with French children in the parks of Paris, and interacting for hours with her French "cousins." Despite the limitations of my French, Mag's language level made her feel at home enough in France to regularly ask when we can "move back." Success, in my book.

And it all started with a placemat!

Any other not-fully-bilinguals teaching their children their second language?

How did you get started?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Our Elusive Summer... and a French FREEBIE!

What a summer! We finally hit warmer temperatures around here, but now it has been thunderstorms keeping us from enjoying the neighborhood pool as much as other summers. It's just one of those years, I guess.

Ma petite sirène-wanna-be is so disheartened to be missing the pool, that I whipped her up another fun little coloring sheet in her favorite theme. This one is just in French (sorry Spanish, German, and Japanese colorers...). This 2-page set is FREE, and you can find it, as always, in my TpT store.
(Updated: broken link is now fixed. Thanks!) 

Need another FREE ocean-themed coloring sheet? Click the image to get this one in a choice of 4 languages.

 photo 23241a6a-cb09-4c01-b8cd-2de3dbada1ac_zps0fc7b98c.jpg


ma petite sirène (French) = my little mermaid

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Language Immersion Programs vs. Home-Based Bilingualism

It's no secret that bilingual students outscore their monolingual peers almost across the board as they advance in school years. An internet search will reveal troves of research supporting that fact. Newer research is also showing that life-long bilinguals enjoy cognitive benefits into their senior years, as well.

Interestingly, research to date has focused primarily on bilingualism acquired from the home or community. But what about bilingualism acquired through a second-language immersion program? Might those students expect the same cognitive benefits as their "true" bilingual peers?

Research out of the University of Liège, Belgium says "YES!"

Researchers looked at a total of 106 French-speaking eight-year-old children from two language groups: 53 children enrolled in English immersion classes since the age of five (the immersion group) and 53 children enrolled in monolingual French-speaking classes (the monolingual group). The two groups were administered a battery of tasks assessing attentional and executive skills.

The immersion group’s reaction times were significantly faster than those of the monolingual group on tasks assessing alerting, auditory selective attention, divided attention and mental flexibility. These results show that:

After only 3 years, a language immersion school experience produces many of the cognitive benefits associated with (true) early bilingualism.

Given these results, it is truly exciting to see how many language immersion programs are popping up around the U.S. and Canada, and beyond!

Future research by this team will follow these same groups through age 12, to determine how increased automaticity of the second language will affect later tests of attention and executive functioning. Should be fascinating to see!

Anne-Catherine Nicolay and Martine Poncelet (2013). Cognitive advantage in children enrolled in a second language immersion elementary school program for three years. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16, pp 597-607.  doi:10.1017/S1366728912000375

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Elephant Who Ate Peanuts Around the World!

photo by: C Aeschlimann
If you've stopped by this blog today, there's a very good chance that you're a foreign language enthusiast. Am I right?

If so, you might enjoy this little excerpt from the abstract of a 2003 study out of Standford U.

Have a look at this seemingly innocent sentence: "The elephant ate peanuts." Nothing really notable about this sentence, either in form or content, right?

Here's where it gets interesting, as least to the polyglot-ophiles. To say the sentence, "The elephant ate peanuts":

  • In ENGLISH, we must give the verb a tense.
  • In MANDARIN, the tense is optional, but cannot be included with the verb.
  • In TURKISH, the speaker must mark if the event was witnessed or is hearsay.
  • In RUSSIAN, the verb needs a tense, the elephant needs a gender (but only in past tense!),  and it must be stated whether all or only some of the peanuts were eaten.

And that's not even counting word order and article usage. Yikes! That poor elephant has a lot to keep track of as he travels around the globe, doesn't he? And I'm sure the world travelers out there know how he feels!

From "Sex, Syntax, and Semantics" by Boroditsky, Schmidt, Philipps