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Music and bilingualism in babies and toddlers

Music and bilingualism in babies and toddlers

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Since the earliest days of life bilingual children can distinguish familiar voices and familiar sounds in the languages they hear. Very young babies tune into the rhythm of language as they acquire the languages of their family and their community. 

Babies love listening to songs, rhymes and music, and singing together is a great way for both parents and children to have fun together! But music and rhythm are not just fun, they are important tools for language development. And the good thing is that singing can boost language skills at every age! 

So, how do can parents get started?

Babies and toddlers love music and movement!

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Songs are a very portable tool, you can sing while playing, while cooking or while pushing the pram. Even if your child doesn’t sing yet, you can be reassured that they are learning from you! With a young child a fun way to sing together is to associate rhythms and sounds with movement. Associating words with gestures can help to learn the meaning of words, and can also help to memorise songs. For bilingual children this is really important, as many words they find in songs may be new to them. 

With very young children, adults are the key resource! There is no app that can beat a good laugh with your child! You can pick any song or lullaby from your childhood, or ask a friend or a family member to teach you! I meet so many parents who have moved abroad and say that they can’t remember childhood songs in their mother tongue, and I completely sympathise! I remember some songs in my grandparents’ dialect, and parts of other songs my grandmother used to sing to me… and often after a few words I realise that I don’t remember all the words! I still have family and friends in Italy, so sometimes I ask them to help! The internet is also a huge resource and nowadays we have access to an incredible amount of music of all kinds.

One thing to remember is that the best way to make the most of music as a tool for language learning in the early years is to remove the distraction of videos, especially with children under the age of 5. Babies are particularly responsive when the music comes directly from the parent. Singing along with a parent is for the development of reciprocal communication (cit Guardian).
The World Health Organisation recommends to avoid screens for young children (find out more here on the HSE website).
Videos and written lyrics can be a very powerful tool for older children, so your strategy can adapt as your children start to learn to read! (more on this soon!)

So, what works with under 5s? Noise! 

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Musical instruments to create rhythm… and noise!

So you have picked your favourite song, it rhymes and it is funny! Now it’s time to make noise! Any cardboard box or shoe box can be used to highlight the rhythm. 

The video embedded here shows a good example of how to use simple objects to have fun with sounds. You can easily adapt this approach to any song, in any language and use your hands to clap, or wooden spoons to bring a twist to it! Anything you have at home can be used, or you can make your own instrument, as shown in this tutorial.
At the start a very young child will beat repeatedly, but if you regularly play this game, your child will learn with you.

How is this linked to bilingualism?

Acquiring two languages means acquiring two sound systems. Singing simple songs, even better if they rhyme or if they have lots of repetition in them, helps to identify sounds and syllables, which is important in language acquisition. Memorising songs requires repetition, so don’t expect that singing a song once or twice will be enough for your child to learn it. Sing the song regularly and your child might naturally want to join in after a while. 

So many parents tell me that their children become “shy” when they have to speak the parent’s mother tongue or when they feel that they don’t know the language well enough. An answer to this challenge is definitely singing. Singing and rhyming are an easy and comfortable way for children to try out their language skills. If children become comfortable singing in the language, and they get encouraged to continue singing as they get older (alongside speaking of course!), they will develop a good pronunciation and confidence in their own skills. 

How do I get started?

If you are a bit scared about trying this out, prepare a little in advance! Pick one or two of your favourite songs that have words that are suitable for your child’s age. Pick some objects that make unusual noises, and something for the beat! Create a relaxing environment and sing looking at your baby in the eyes. Use your own voice or a CD/MP3 player so the child is focusing on listening and will watch you rather than a screen. Use gestures to accompany some sounds and clap to mark beats. Let your child clap with you. 

Once you become a pro, nothing will stop you and you will start singing together in the kitchen, during bath time, and at bed time! Don’t forget to give your child time to try out words, make mistakes and experiment, as this is a natural part of learning about language. As you become a master of songs and rhymes, you can change some words to make the song sound funny or different, and your child will soon follow with their own creative input. 

As you get to the end of this blog post, we are getting ready for a very unusual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration in Ireland, so I will leave you a song as Gaeilge by Futa Fata!

Buon divertimento!

Dr Francesca La Morgia
Founder of Mother Tongues

 

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Are we wasting our time with home languages?

Parents of bilingual children often tell me that the reason why they moved to Ireland is for their children to become fluent speakers of English. Sometimes I come across parents who avoid speaking their mother tongue to make sure that their children develop English to the best of their abilities. This week I met a dad who said that he didn’t make a conscious choice about language use in his trilingual family, things just happened naturally. His wife spent the early years with the child and spoke her language to him, the common family language was English, and his own mother tongue never had any role or space in the family life. Now his child doesn’t understand the paternal grandparents and needs the dad to act as an interpreter. While this didn’t seem to be an issue before, it is now becoming more and more frustrating for the child to have a conversation with the dad’s family and he is losing interest in talking to them.
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There are many reasons why parents in Ireland might choose not to speak their mother tongue to their children or might unconsciously slip into a habit of speaking English.
Some people have been advised against bilingualism by uninformed (usually monolingual) people who shared their own unfounded concerns about bilingualism. Sometimes people feel that English is enough. There is only so much time in one day. Mum and dad can speak English, after all. Teachers, friends and neighbours can all speak English, so are we wasting our time with home languages?
This question is flawed in many ways. Think about it. We know that children who go to libraries regularly end up loving books and, in turn, become skilled readers and do well in school. So we take babies to libraries to encourage them to enjoy reading because we know the effect that this will have on their future. We know that team sports are fantastic for children’s physical and emotional development. With this in mind, parents spend hours driving their children to matches and training sessions because they know the impact this will have in the short and long term. But when it comes to languages, do we take the same approach?
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You won’t be surprised to hear that many parents think that is more important for their child to do well in sports than to be fluent in the home language, a language that only a handful of people in Ireland speak. The truth is, to speak your mother tongue to your child you don’t need expensive equipment or refined teaching skills. You need time and dedication. You need to keep in mind that what you are doing has an incredibly positive impact on the child’s mental, emotional and psycho-social development. But why can’t your child just live with one language and get on with life like every other monolingual child in the world? Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. By not speaking their mother tongue to their child, parents have made a decision on behalf of their child. They have decided that their child should live without a part of their family history and identity. They have decided that this child won’t join in conversations at the dinner table with the extended family. They have decided that one language is more important than the other. And the truth is that the majority of these children are the ones who fill language classes as adults. They want to reconnect to something that has been missing in their lives.
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As I put her to bed, my daughter asks for a story in English. There is a book just there beside me, I can pick it up and start reading. I am tired, it will be easy for me to go with her wishes and not engage in a discussion. However, I remember that I am her only link with Italian right now and I owe this to her. I scan my childhood memories. I remember a story about a small orange that lost his mum in the fruit market. I don’t know why it stayed with me. It is a very simple story, but one that my mum “repackaged” in many adventurous episodes. As I start to tell the story she voices her disappointment. “Is this an Italian story?”. I tell her that this story means a lot to me, that her grandmother used to tell me the exact same story, so it is being passed to her now as a special gift. She goes quiet and listens.
I belong in two worlds, and it is like having two keys for two doors. My gift to my daughter is the key to my world and hopefully, this will lead to many more open doors and many language adventures in her future. 
Francesca La Morgia

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Three key tips to keep your mother tongue alive after the Summer holidays

Three key tips to keep your mother tongue alive after the Summer holidays

Three key tips to keep your mother tongue alive after the Summer holidays

For many families, Summer is the time for giving their home language a boost. Children are out of school and often the Summer is the time to spend with the extended family, in Ireland or abroad. Many parents see a significant improvement in their children’s language skills after they spend time immersed in the heritage language both in Ireland and abroad.
It’s now time to go back to school and to the usual routines. So how can parents continue to support the development of the heritage language with the limited time and resources available?
Here are three key tips I have collected from parents over the years:

 

  • Keep speaking your mother tongue to your child as often as possible, even if it seems easier to switch to English.

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    For many parents it is easy to speak their own mother tongue when they are on holidays in their country of origin and they have many people to talk to, but they may find it more difficult to keep it up if they are in Ireland surrounded by English speakers. Remind yourself that it is important to continue practising oral language skills and even if your child responds in English, being exposed to your language will keep the language active in the child’s mind and alive in your home.

  • Read books and tell bedtime stories in your mother tongue.

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    Reading is a fun activity that you can share with your child. To find free books in your language, try to search the library catalogue here. Enter a keyword such as “picture books” and select the language of choice. The book can be ordered online and sent for free to your local library, anywhere in Ireland.
    You can try out different techniques to make reading together enjoyable for both of you. For parents who have small amounts of time to spend with their children, reading together and telling each other stories can be a wonderful opportunity to bond. Remove all distractions and get stuck into it!
    To make the most of reading to your child in your mother tongue, ask questions and encourage your child to interact with the book. This will help the child’s ability to understand the story and to learn new words. Ask younger children to point and give them easy tasks to interact with the book. Older children (primary school age) also like it when the parents read books or tell stories to them. Audiobooks are great too, but the great advantage of sharing a book is the possibility to ask questions and learn new words together, and this is great for the child’s oral language skills.

  • Find your tribe

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    “Home languages” are called so because often their use is confined to the home. But it doesn’t have to be so! It is important for children to use language with a range of people to develop competence but also to see that it is useful and enjoyable. Children also get a great confidence boost when they see that there are many other people in Ireland who speak the same language as their parents. If you want to meet families who can help you on the journey to bilingualism Mother Tongues can help you. Our initiative Talk to me in… has only started in early 2019, but many families have already taken part in these informal meetups in Croatian, Swedish, Italian, German and French. To organise a Talk to me in… just choose a place and a time and send them via our contact form. We advertise the meet up for you, so you can “find your tribe” in your local area.


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