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Ask Olga! What’s In an Accent?

October 31st, 2018 · No Comments

“We be of one blood, ye and I,” said Mowgli, quickly giving the Snake’s Call.

“Down hoods all,” said half a dozen low voices.

—Excerpt from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

My family has had a great summer and fall. So full of children and chatter, stories and fun! My granddaughter Michelle has just turned five, and her little brother, Maxim, is three. He is joining in the linguistic adventures—she takes the leading role and he follows her lead, repeating everything she says. So far, brother and sister mostly converse with each other in Russian, one of their shared home languages. We laugh at the ways five- and three-year-old use, mix, modify and reorganize our adult phrases in their play.

Our ears also pick up that they speak Russian, one of their native languages, with an accent. They do not sound quite like their monolingual Russian-speaking peers.

So we begin to wonder if this is something we should ignore, or something we should address in order to “correct.” Is it something that will develop and adjust spontaneously? Does it even matter whether they speak differently?

We look for answers to these questions, dive into available research and parental experience, always looking back at our initial goals and visions, revisiting and re-evaluating our understandings, judgments, insights.

We know that accents, or ways people sound, are very much part of the linguistic landscape around the world.  Sounds of speech are like colors and tastes; they tap into our feelings and memories, our perceptions and stereotypes. They also signal social bonding and facilitate understanding. They are hard to ignore.

We all have our personal accents, or micro-accents, in our native languages, but we know that typically accents will be a clue to where people live and grew up, or what social group they have been around.

We often develop an accent in a second, or additional, language, when our speech exhibits phonological characteristics of our native tongue.

But my grandchildren’s accent fits a different linguistic profile: it appears to be the result of interplay between their two home languages, Russian and French, and their additional language, English.

Is it even worth worrying about the sounds of their speech? Especially because languages—and accents—are fluid. Accents along with languages evolve and change over time, and the perceptions of accents also evolve across social, cultural and generational groups. The ‘norms’ or ‘proper sounds’ in any language or group are not set in stone.

When we make a language plan for our children, we usually do not include “achieving a desirable accent that reflects our ‘current norm’ or our ‘group norm’ of pronunciation.” Accents seem to be very much part of the diverse linguistic landscape. 

On the other hand, accents can play a role in the way we are understood—in the intelligibility and the quality of our communication; in our ability to adjust, to fit in various social, cultural and linguistic contexts. In the excerpt from The Jungle Book above, being able to sound like a snake allows Mowgli to be trusted and accepted as part of the group. This brilliant fantasy has many insights into human behavior.

Research tells us that accents depend to a large extent on the amount and diversity of exposure to languages. The more time you spend with a particular group, the more you sound like its members. We know that our grandchildren, Michelle and Maxim, are restricted, compared to their monolingual peers, in the amount and variety of exposure they receive to each of their two home languages. Perhaps they will get even less exposure to Russian and French as they enter the UK educational system and spend most of each day with English-speaking teachers and peers. An almost sure way to acquire a “British” accent, whatever that means . . .

So, we can say, fine, we do not have to worry about their accent in their home languages, this is not important, this is a trait of multilingual speech; linguistic proficiency is not measured by an accent, there are more important aspects of language we will focus on. We can only do so much . . . But if we think of multilingualism as an asset, then perhaps we should seek ways to support all aspects of it and provide our children with opportunities to acquire accents that will allow them to function with confidence and flexibility in diverse settings. Just like chameleons change color in response to environmental changes, multilinguals should be able to change their accent in response to a specific social, educational or cultural environment.

To support phonological development of our multilinguals in their home languages we can focus on the sounds of speech through engaging children in various activities:

  • reading, memorizing and reciting poetry;
  • listening to and singing songs;
  • listening to audio books; and
  • reading books—and anything readable—out loud.

We can also:

  • look for and create opportunities for interacting with same-language peers;
  • widen the circle of home language friends so children can be exposed to diverse models;
  • expose children to cultural events, lectures, performances;
  • use home country visits to immerse children in cultural and educational events, family and social gatherings; and
  • look for resources to identify and become aware of differences in speech sounds of different languages, in order to work on articulation/pronunciation.

Finally, consult a multilingual professional if you notice any difficulties with speech production and/or clarity!

At the end of each encounter with our little trilinguals, I always have a feeling of “not enough done, what else could we do?” . . . regrets, successes, new ideas, plans for the future. But of course, no matter what our plans ahead of time are, actual interaction with the children always brings joy and surprises.

Retaining an Accent: Why Some People Retain an Accent in a Second Language

Multilingual Accents

On Bilingual and Monolingual Children and Accents

Columnist Olga Steklova is a retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself. She shares tips for raising multilingual children as she observes her own grandchildren. To read more columns, click on the Ask Olga! category below.

Tags: Ask Olga! · Mother tongue at home · Websites

ISB Offers French, Spanish Picture Books Online

May 8th, 2018 · No Comments

Buying picture books in Romance languages in Asia can be a challenge. Did you know that the ES Hub (ES Library) offers online picture books in French and Spanish via TumbleBookLibrary.com? Here are the steps to view a selection of books in these languages. To receive the username and password, ask in the ES Hub or email nativelanguage@isb.ac.th.

1. Go to TumbleBookLibrary.com and enter ISB Username and Password.

2. Click on TumbleSearch. 

3. Go to Search by Language, and select language. French and Spanish currently offer the best selection of titles in addition to English. 

4. Browse book descriptions, and click Read Online to view a book.

5. Enjoy! Picture books on this site feature sound and animation.

 

Tags: Books · Mother tongue at home · Websites

Helping Children Learn a Spouse’s Language

February 27th, 2018 · 2 Comments

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In many ISB families, the parents speak different native languages. Both hope their children will learn both. But what if one parent works late or travels frequently? Can the other parent help the children learn both languages? Yes!

Yale linguist Claire Bowern writes that it is OK to speak in your spouse’s language sometimes, even if you do not speak it perfectly. Research shows that “kids who are exposed to early language from non-native speakers usually grow up to be full speakers of that language.”

Bowern adds, “The main thing children need is not so much a highly accurate linguistic role model, but rather several people to speak it with, and one strong way to do that is for the non-native speaker parent to speak the language too.”

Rita Rosenback, author of Bringing Up a Bilingual Child, writes that consistency in using your native language with children is most important when you are their main source of the language: “the general rule is that the less exposure a child has to a language, the greater the need is for the person [parent] to be consistent with the language use.” (So, for an ISB family with a German mom who travels and a Thai dad who stays home, the mother can help by being consistent with German, but the Thai dad may sometimes switch to German—because the kids get lots of exposure to Thai in Thailand.) 

Chontelle Bonfiglio, creator of the website Bilingual Kidspot, has even posted about how a single parent can teach a child two languages

ISB encourages families to make a language plan. If you would like ideas for supporting a spouse’s language in your plan, please get in touch: 

nativelanguage@isb.ac.th

Tags: Family Language Plan · Websites

Happy International Mother Language Day 2018!

February 21st, 2018 · No Comments

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Today is International Mother Language Day, an observance recognized by the United Nations and long celebrated by UNESCO, with the aim of promoting linguistic diversity and multilingualism— “keystones of sustainability and peace” on the UNESCO International Mother Language Day 2018 website.

ISB marked International Mother Language Day with observances throughout the school, ranging from read-alouds, to writing prompts, to art projects, to special bulletin boards. A selection of international pop tunes played in the cafeteria during MS/HS lunch. A floor-to-ceiling chalkboard in the ES featured writing in children’s languages, about how their families say good morning.

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We hope all students felt especially proud of their native languages today at ISB. Happy International Mother Language Day!

Tags: Native Language at ISB · Websites

“The Need Factor is Crucial” for Learning Language

February 9th, 2018 · No Comments

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François Grosjean is an emeritus professor of linguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, whose blog Life as a Bilingual appears in the Bookmarks on the right side of this blog. Grosjean has been quoted as saying “the need factor is crucial” for young multilinguals: They must experience regular situations in which only one of their languages will do. If not, Grosjean says, “children are very good at judging whether it is worth maintaining a language or letting it wither away.”

Our recent post by columnist Olga Steklova also mentions the need for diverse experiences, “language use for a wide variety of meaningful purposes.”

Besides language class, where can your child regularly “need” a language? 

Full post quoting Grosjean at The Economist Prospero blog: Bringing Up Baby Bilingual: Strategies for Getting Youngsters Fluent in More than One Language

Tags: Family Language Plan · Mother tongue at home · Multilingualism · Websites

Ask Olga! More on “Linguistic Balance”

January 29th, 2018 · 1 Comment

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The holidays are over—we enjoyed them tremendously! Our grandchildren, while they were acquiring swimming skills here in Thailand, were also immersed in a rich “linguistic pool”.

“Tell me a story, Baba!” And I’d begin—in Russian. Breaks and pauses were not appreciated. “And then, Baba, and then?” At the age of 4, Michelle has an insatiable thirst for stories. We’d practice telling stories together. She would coerce me into taking the leading roles. Probably the same routine, with variations, happens in her other family language, French. She is also keen on talking about “mathematics”—perhaps her educational setting in her English preschool inspired her love for numbers. She easily transfers number concepts into Russian and French contexts. We are astonished by her linguistic gains and amused by her creativity and ability to switch effortlessly between languages, skilfully adjusting her talk to match the speaker’s “linguistic personality”.

Perhaps while memories are fresh, it is time to revisit some of our beliefs and assumptions and start setting goals and making new plans. Should we assume that our grandchild, through our family’s efforts, has become “balanced” in her linguistic ability? Or is it too early to draw conclusions, since language proficiency changes over time? The phrases “balanced bilinguals” and “language dominance” are often used when talking about bilingual and multilingual development. And yet, how can we define “balance”? Does this mean perfect or equal proficiency in each language, and how do we measure it? Especially taking into account the child’s ever-changing personal, social and educational landscape.

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So many factors beyond our control throughout children’s lives will affect their need, and their ability, to use languages. Can we ever expect them to be perfect? Even if balance, or lack of it, between two languages might be possible to imagine and describe—my mind sees bicycles with two perfectly functional (or broken) wheels; or two floating icebergs with all parts intact (or some missing); or two fully (or partially) inflated balloons inside a person’s head—wait, what about the “balance” of three languages? The metaphors start to break up. Perhaps linguistic balance is not only an unattainable goal, but also an unhelpful way to look at linguistic ability in children who are growing up with several languages.

Rather than aiming at “linguistic balance”—which is hard to define and assess—we could aim at developing and strengthening children’s ability to function with confidence in linguistically and culturally diverse and changing settings. If we think about language in terms of its functions, or domains of use, we can then support children by expanding their experiences and providing contexts of language use for a wide variety of meaningful purposes. Those purposes might differ across languages, contexts and over time. To this end we set goals and make plans. Here it might be worthwhile to focus not just on goals and plans, but also on our visions. Whereas goals are specific and attainable, visions are broad, all-encompassing ideas. Goals of course are necessary, but visions provide purpose and significance for the whole endeavor of becoming functionally proficient language users.

Here is a link to a blog post, written by multilingual linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira: Dominant Languages and Balanced Languages

Columnist Olga Steklova is a retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself. She shares tips for raising multilingual children as she observes her own grandchildren. Here is a column that she wrote previously about linguistic balance, when the 4-year-old granddaughter described above was 2-1/2: How Important is Linguistic Balance?

Tags: Ask Olga! · Multilingualism · Websites

12 Things Parents Raising Bilingual Children Need to Know

January 24th, 2018 · No Comments

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The website Multilingual Parenting by Rita Rosenback, author of the book Bringing Up a Bilingual Child, offers practical tips for parents of bilingual and multilingual children. The site’s “12 things” post may be viewed in Italian (above) as well as English, Belarusian, Catalan, Chinese, Czech, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish and Ukrainian. For further resources, see the Bookmarks on the right side of this blog.

Tags: Bilingualism · Websites