It took less than an hour in Paris to realise GCSE French and a passing acquaintance with a phrase book meant I sounded more Del Boy than Depardieu. There are, it appears, times when a pocketful of enthusiasm and a fistful of verbs just aren’t enough.
So with my linguistic lethargy what hope does Raffie have of finding his way through French or any other language?
Well, according to Cate Hamilton, co-founder of Babel Babies, quite a bit.
She and her friend Ruth started Babel Babies, multisensory music and movement sessions with songs from around the world, in 2011. And after last week’s Mind Your Language blog I am delighted that she has kindly agreed to be Two Years Old and Rising’s first interviewee.
Cate explains how babies and toddlers learn and how those of us who are unnatural linguists can help ourselves and our little ones start to sing from the same songsheet.
If you are a parent with GCSE French or Spanish, is it worth revisiting this with your baby or toddler? Or would it just confuse them?
If you are not bringing up bilingual children because you and your partner both speak the same language, it can be a daunting task to try and introduce children to other languages. But have no fear! You cannot confuse a young child when it comes to language, as long as you explain about how different people speak different languages depending on where they come from. They would be confused if you suddenly started speaking to them in Spanish after two years of English, but there are lots of ways to bring Spanish into your life without making a dramatic and unsettling switch.
Bilingual babies learn their two languages simultaneously in separate parts of their brain, distinguishing between the two sound groups from birth and performing incredible mental gymnastics when they switch, effortlessly, between the two. People used to think bilingual babies learned language more slowly than monolingual babies, that it somehow confused them. This is because when they start speaking they use fewer words in each language, but they still know the same number of words in total and they have learned two language systems in the same time it took everyone else to learn just one. They soon start speaking equally prolifically in both and catch up with their monolingual peers.
But, what about us mere mortals with only our humble English mother tongue and our GCSE French?
You can do no harm at all by introducing your young children to the idea that in other countries, people use different words to describe the same objects. Teaching your two year old that children in France say chien instead of dog, but they mean the same thing, is a massive philosophical step for them.
You certainly don’t have to be fluent in another language to open your child’s eyes to the world around them and a smattering of another language is better than none. You can integrate some very simple steps into your daily routine to achieve this: read a book you enjoy in English in the other language (lots of translations of your favourite books on Amazon here http://astore.amazon.co.uk/babebabi-21); after lunch, do some dancing to foreign tunes, and sing a lullaby at bedtime. You could put up a poster with the French ABC and point out different words as you are playing. In just ten minutes a day, as long as you do it regularly, you will be giving your child an amazing opportunity to investigate languages.
Your enthusiasm will have a far more positive effect than your lack of vocabulary or less than perfect accent. In educational spheres we call it emotional intelligence and it basically means that, when your kids are at school and learning the subject seriously, they will have a positive attitude that helps them learn. It’s not about getting your two year old fluent in French before school; it’s about getting them emotionally ready to learn by having fun together with languages and, maybe in the process, picking up some useful knowledge and a new song or two to boot.
How do babies and toddlers start to learn language?
You might think that babies aren’t really interested in language until they begin speaking in their second year, when they suddenly unleash their inner chatterbox and leave you wondering if you’ll ever have any peace again! The first year is often overlooked in the language acquisition process as babies don’t seem to be doing very much. Actually, what they are doing is listening, which is arguably the most important phase of learning a language.
In fact, listening, and therefore language acquisition, starts before babies are even born. Foetuses can hear sounds from the second trimester and during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy they really tune in to the rhythms and tones of their mother’s voice, so much so that they recognise their mother (and therefore their mother tongue) at birth. Thus babies are not a ‘blank canvas’ when they are born but are already primed for learning the language that will help them communicate with their family. Tiny babies are soothed by the sounds they are familiar with, the ones they heard in the womb, and they gradually filter out sounds they don’t hear very often.
But for a while, newborn babies can hear any sound in any language. An English baby can hear all the diverse sounds of Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, Norwegian, French, Spanish, and Welsh, and can tell the difference between their primary language and a foreign language just hours after they are born. Studies use a simple sucking test to demonstrate that new babies suck a dummy harder than normal when they hear a sound they don’t recognise, thus showing that they are aware it is different.
If a baby never hears any Mandarin Chinese, however, while they are very young, they won’t be able to differentiate certain sounds that only exist in Mandarin when they are older. Their brains start to tune into the sounds they are actually going to need, the ones they hear regularly, and their amazing ability to hear any sound in any language gradually disappears so that, by the time they are babbling, they are already hard-wired into the sounds of their mother tongue.
So what about when they get older?
The sucking test carried out at 10-12 months shows that monolingual babies no longer show the same interest in unfamiliar sounds as they did at 6 months. Bilingual babies, however, continue to show interest in both sets of sounds and are even beginning to distinguish and separate them into two groups of sounds: in other words, their two primary languages.
Languages are initially learned through rhythms and patterns of speech rather than specific vocabulary, which is why a toddler will come up to you and jabber away about their favourite rabbit/dog/train without making any recognisable words, but with all the same intonation and speech patterns of an adult.
Then comes the ability to match a word with a picture or an object, which babies may be able to demonstrate before they can speak by pointing or fetching something you ask them to find, or making signs if you teach them some sign language. And finally, after all those months of listening and learning, babies start babbling and imperceptibly the babble becomes recognisable words, joining up to make sentences and then, when they are in their third year, they are fully fledged wordsmiths experimenting with grammatical concepts (“I didn’t done it, daddy, it was Henry that done’d it.”)
How does music help them to learn?
If you’ve ever done any revision for exams by recording your notes with music in the background, or changing the words of your favourite song to include your revision notes, you will probably still remember it many years later because music is a powerful tool for lodging information in our long-term memory.
Similarly, music is an important way to help babies pick up language(s). The rhythms make the language easier to remember by emphasising the patterns of speech. Singing nursery rhymes over and over again embeds the rhythms into babies’ brains and they soon recognise the different songs. If you include actions or signs as well, this makes them even more accessible to babies and enables them to join in with you earlier. A baby can sign Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or The Wheels on the Bus long before they can understand or say the words.
Music and repetition are a magical combination for learning anything, especially language: sing the same songs little and often to embed them in your long-term memory.
How can parents help their child learn language?
Babies are social creatures and learn language through interacting with their families. If you plonk a baby in front of the television they won’t learn how to speak from the people on screen: language is a purely social concept for young babies. Toddlers will learn lots of words from the television (so be careful what they watch!) but the process of language learning is very active; it is aural and social, emotional and physical.
Therefore, as parents, the best thing we can do is to speak to our children – constantly and about everything! It is a delightfully simple strategy that doesn’t require any preparation, cost or fancy gadgets. I often think it is like being a chef on TV because I’m always describing what I am doing out loud: “look mummy is putting the washing in the dryer – there are the red socks, and now the blue socks, and here’s the £10 note I lost earlier.”
Singing and dancing are enjoyable ways to learn language. Think of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes as a toddler lesson in biology as well as a fun singalong! And, of course, music really helps children remember what they are learning.
Reading stories is incredibly important as well. Books allow you to investigate themes you can’t possibly encounter in daily life, as well as reinforcing and making sense of the everyday things, and they allow children to explore worlds they will probably never visit (unless you happen to own a rocket, or live with pirates). Books unlock children’s imaginations, help them fill in the gaps between what they have seen and what they have heard about from adults or on the TV, and the pictures support their language acquisition on all of these wonderful adventures.
What are the benefits of small children learning another language as they learn their own?
As well as the emotional benefits mentioned above, there are lots of cognitive benefits to small children learning additional languages. Children at school score slightly higher in IQ tests if they have a second language because their brains are used to figuring out puzzles and thinking laterally. This also makes them perform better in maths and music, which require similar mental juggling skills as learning a language.
And I recently read that children have better powers of concentration if they know more than one language, because they are used to blocking out unwanted signals in order to retrieve the relevant information from their brain, and this helps them block out unwanted distractions in class too.
The process of learning a second language gives the brain a jolly good workout and it’s not only children who have learned two languages from birth that reap the benefits. Adults learning a second language later in life have been proven to have greater resistance to Alzheimer’s disease because, studies show, their brains are more adept at rerouting neural pathways if the usual way is blocked.
Both children and adults get a great sense of satisfaction from learning even the simplest things in another language. It builds their confidence, opens up the world before them and even gives them the tools to understand their own language better.
Finally, there is just something joyously wonderful about going to the park with your little one and them shouting “Look, mummy! Écureuil! That’s a squirrel in French!” when they see a squirrel.
You can find out more about Babel Babies here http://babelbabies.com/ and this BBC story sheds more light on how little ones learn even before they are born http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22457797
If you’re feeling nostalgic you can take a trip down memory lane to Peckham and revisit Only Fools and Horses, including some of Del Boy’s greatest French phrases, here http://www.ofah.net/blog/