Language Development and Bilingualism

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One of the many questions a parent may ask themselves when trying to raise a bilingual child is: ‘will my child be at a disadvantage?’ ‘Will his understanding be delayed?’ ‘Will she be able to advance at the same pace because of having to learn two languages or more?’ The answer to all of these is a categorical no according to current research. Being bilingual is beneficial in many areas of life, especially in the early years. But there is also the reality that a small percentage of children the world over have language development issues for a variety of reasons.

Little Girl has a lisp, in that she can’t pronounce the ‘ch’ sound at all. ‘Elle zozote’, as we say in French. It’s cute but I have been aware of it for a while as a potential ‘thing’ to look out for. She is only three years old so it hasn’t been on my urgent to-do list but I have noticed it, especially around her peers who don’t seem to have the same problem. Until recently, I didn’t know if it was an issue or not, and I had no real way to figure it out on the sly. When can you start talking about language delays anyway? Is there really no correlation between language development delays and bilingualism? These are real questions and it’s not that easy to see the wood for the trees when you are in the thick of it. Information isn’t exactly readily available unless you notice a problem yourself and take it to a specialist. As a parent with a basic understanding of biology and an even better knowledge of how to use Google, I didn’t want to blow it out of proportion but I didn’t know where to turn either to get some basic information without committing a crime against my brain by going on Wikipedia.

Then about a month ago I got an email from our local family centre advertising a Speech and Language Therapy drop-in clinic and I jumped at the chance to get it checked-out.

The observation was very laid back; Little Girl was presented with pictures of objects and animals and asked to describe them before putting the cards in a big red post box. The therapist went through a lot of words, most of which Little Girl knew (phew) and I was even more gratified when she saw a picture of a frog and said ‘grenouille’ (‘she can’t put a French sentence together but she does know some words!’). At the same time I was gradually getting twitchy watching the therapist write something down next to 90% of the words. I had never noticed before but Little Girl pronounced almost all of them a little bit wrong. It was mostly bog standard stuff like poon for spoon, tair for stair, wabbit for rabbit, bruss for brush and soo for shoe. And all the ‘th’ sounds, which are typically English and even I don’t know if I say them right all the time, so I wasn’t surprised to hear her mangle them a bit. Still, seeing this on the page was concerning.

It turns out that her development is completely normal and appropriate for her age, including all the ‘sh’ and ‘th’ stuff. And the therapist was very positive about the fact that we were trying to raise her with both French and English; she had no concerns at all. She did say that considering the pool of words and sounds she has to learn, a little delay was possible but nothing to worry about.

What I didn’t know, and I suspect most parents don’t either, is that a lot of pronunciation doesn’t settle until a child is five or even six years old! Not only was all of this information completely new to me, but it also felt like something I should be aware of without needing to go to a special clinic because I am worried. This sheet below is the most helpful thing I’ve seen all year.

Normal language development 0 - 6 yrs old

Normal language development 0 – 6 yrs old

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I have ‘issues’ with the English pre-school system

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It’s no surprise to anyone who has spoken to me in the last few weeks that I can’t get my head around the English pre-school system. I really don’t get it: the whole way it is organised – or not organised – is a mystery to me. Before anyone thinks this is going to  be a ranty post dissing the whole thing and praising the French way of doing it, I am not going to do that. I’m happy to accept that I’m probably at fault in this instance because it’s been by far one of the biggest culture shocks I’ve experienced in years. And yeah, it’s at least in part because I am bitter about the fact that I failed to get Little Girl a space at a pre-school for the beginning of September. So I’m just going to explain the differences that struck me most so you can maybe see why it’s been a head-doer for me.

In France, school starts at three years old. Before you start primary school at 6 years old, you spend three years in the school system going through the Maternelle; they are called small, middle and big sections. Whilst the first year, like pre-school, is not compulsory, most children attend from day one, most likely because why wouldn’t they? In terms of what happens in the classroom, it is very much like an English pre-school, the environment is designed for them to learn by play. The main difference that I can see is that as it is officially ‘school’, so children are guaranteed a place in the school in their catchment area. You get your letter, you put down your preferences, you wait, the end. Not so in England.

I was astounded when I discovered that I should have put Little Girl on a pre-school waiting list from about 6 months old if I hoped to guarantee her place when she would start the term after her third birthday. Astounded. I knew nothing about it at the time of course, what with still being in shock that I’d given birth to an actual real baby and it was still alive and, goodness me, already moving on to the weaning stage. So when I was asked where I thought she’d go to pre-school when she was about 18 months old, I felt super-stressed and didn’t have a clue what to do about it, so I just dug my head in the sand a bit and thought I had plenty of time to figure it out. It was the wrong decision to make, as I found out this summer.

At the end of last year, I bit the bullet and visited places, because you have to do that yourself, and you have to decide what the best fit for your child might be. For me, based on my zero experience in what preschool is supposed to look like, was really disconcerting. But I did visit a few and got my list of important things to look for down to three:

Safety: my first visit to a preschool, on a rainy day, was fine until I had to go down a metal fire escape ladder to get to the playground, the very same steps the children would also have to follow to play outside. I feared for my life, and decided that maybe, I did have a faint idea about where I didn’t want my child to go.

Sanitation: I clearly visited the wrong day, because throughout the 30 minutes I spent in that second place, the smell of poo was so seriously overpowering that it put me right off my lunch and that preschool as well.

Cost: another thing that surprised and shocked me a little. You often have to pay an administrative fee to put your child on a waiting list, and it doesn’t guarantee a place. It can be as little as £10, but even that adds up quickly if you want to up your chances by putting your child’s name down in more than one place. And then, because pre-school is literally ‘pre’ school, it is not actually free. The government only subsidises 15 hours a week, which is not very much at all, basically three mornings. A lot of places are nurseries that run all year round and only have a limited number of subsidised spaces. They will only offer 12 out of the 15 free hours because it’s more profitable that way, and you’re automatically at the bottom of their waiting list.

Unfortunately, this is what happened with Little Girl. I put her down at the one place I wanted her to go, a pre-school located in an actual school, with grounds and a distinct scholarly feel that I felt would better prepare her for when she goes to ‘proper school’ next year. Then we got the letter telling us she didn’t have a space for a September start in the middle of July, the week before the end of the term, thus giving us no chance to contact anyone to try and find a place elsewhere.

I left a few slightly deranged voicemails at one pre-school and then went off on holiday feeling like the worst mother in the whole world. And was reminded of it again when we got back and received an invitation to go to an open day at the pre-school she hadn’t gotten into; then felt even worse when she picked up the leaflet and said ‘look maman, it’s my school!’ in the most excited voice. I could have wept.

In the end, I’m happy to say that we eventually got a place at a preschool not five minutes away. I don’t really know how it happened, I think it might be another miracle if I’m honest. Little Girl started last Wednesday and loved it. She’s only there two mornings a week but they will add to it as soon as they are able.

The biggest thing that get me about the whole saga is that Little Girl is only going to be there for a few months. School officially starts at 4 years old and as an end-of-July baby, she will start next September. So this whole hassle, stress and disappointment was all for a measly 9 months of her life. So yes, I don’t really get it.

Potty Training is my personal parenting hell

Potty training parenting hell

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

All parents face one or more challenges that present more of a problem to them than others for completely obscure reasons. For me, potty training is that seemingly insurmountable hurdle.

Breastfeeding was bone-achingly hard at first but I had a good handle on how it worked, why I was having problems and what I wanted to achieve; with perseverance and stubbornness, it has been a success story with both my girls. Weaning came much sooner than expected but we settled into baby-led weaning with incredible ease. Sleep training was a slow process purely because we didn’t ‘train’ at all but went with the flow like the attachment parents that we are, and it hasn’t been a cause of stress, just tiring, because, well, kids.

Potty training though, I am finding so hard, not because it’s more difficult than any of these other things but because I feel completely out of my depth. I really feel like I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing in a !PANIC! sort of way and it has taken me ages not to feel overwhelmed by the task, let alone figure out a plan for how we were going to do it. So here’s my confession: Little Girl is going to be three years old in two weeks’ time and she is not potty trained.

Most of her friends have been going to the toilet for months. But no amount of ‘you can be a big girl like xyz‘ has made any difference. After three failed attempts, I now think it’s purely down to Little Girl not being ready but how can you really tell? How do I know it’s not just because I’ve been utterly crap at it? She showed all the signs of being interested; we bought the potties and the knickers with her and drew a chart and used stickers. She did a few pees in there and even a poo (the drama!) and then I put knickers on her and she peed all over the place. It was as if she was wearing nappies, and she can spend all day in her dirty nappies without it bothering her. As soon as the knickers went on, it was as if she lost all awareness of needing to use the potty and she would use them like a nappy; just horrific. As we live in rented accommodation and there’s carpet in nearly every room (carpet, how I loathe thee), it just wasn’t an option to keep on doing this or to let her go bare-bummed in March weather. So the nappies went back on. I tried another couple of times and couldn’t face walking into pee-smelling rooms anymore.

Only in the last week has it looked like she might finally be getting it. We started again by accident last week when we left the house in a hurry and I only realised at our destination that she was wearing nothing under her dress (no comment on this particular parenting fail…). We’ve kept on going on and off since then and it’s been two days straight now that she has been consistently using the potty. Only one thing though, she is still not wearing knickers. I’ve decided that, as the weather is much better and she has lots of long summer dresses, we’re just going to go commando everywhere until we’ve cracked it and then we’ll try the knickers again (on my parents’ wooden floor whilst on holiday, hopefully). And it’s working. She is using a pink Peppa Pig potty that she proudly empties herself whilst declaring ‘I’m a big girl now!’.

It still feels that this success has absolutely nothing to do with me and that I’m just a lucky bystander. If it wasn’t working now, I would literally have no idea what to do, and I don’t like this feeling at all but what can I do?

Naughty Children and Using Words Wisely

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I wrote the other day about how being labelled argumentative in my early twenties caused me to doubt myself and my ability to fit in. Even now, I sometimes catch myself after speaking and wild thoughts run inside my head: ‘I have literally no idea how that came across; should I have not said that? Do people think I was rude? I didn’t mean to be rude but what if they thought I was? Will they think I was rude on purpose? It sounded completely innocuous in my head before I said it and now I’m not sure. Something feels awkward, was it me? I can’t tell if it was me. We weren’t even talking about anything important! Aaaaaaarrrgh!!!!

If the words people use to describe us can have an impact on us as adults, who are at least marginally self-aware and able to pick up truth from falsehood, think what they can do to our children.

I was once chatting with a group of friends and the issue of naughty children came up. Someone was saying how their child was just so naughty all the time and they didn’t know what to do about it; all the while I just sat there open-mouthed, because we weren’t talking about toddler tantrums but a child under one, basically a baby discovering the world and making a bit of mess along the way. The word ‘naughty’ means badly behaved or disobedient. It is implied that you are able to be better behaved or obedient and you are choosing not to. I don’t think it is possible for a child who has not yet reached this developmental stage to be naughty. If you have no concept of right and wrong, how can you choose either?

Maybe you think I’m overreacting. It’s just a word! I know; ‘naughty’ is the go-to word to describe a child doing something they should not. My problem with how we use words like this one is that the first year is only the beginning of that child’s life, and that we need to take a step back and think about what we say about our children and to them and whether they reflect our intentions well. I may be more aware of this because English isn’t my first language and I often have to quite consciously think about what I want to say but maybe it’s no bad thing.

It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a child, especially when it comes to the impact words have on the way they view themselves. I sometimes recall specific things that were said to me as a child that I know helped (or not) shape my worldview and character, especially from around the ages of 10-11 years old, which is when you start to analyse every single thing your parents say. But by then it might already be too late. We may excuse our words with ‘I was only joking! He knows I love him’ but does he? Young children are more likely to take our words at face value and may not understand things said in jest and they will take to heart throwaway comments like ‘don’t be so stupid’, ‘why do you keep being so naughty’, ‘why do you always…’, ‘you never…’ etc.

How we act when pushed to the limit

It’s very easy to say to a child that they are being naughty. It may seem like throwing a small stone in a lake. The ripples are barely noticeable. But I would argue that how we say things matter. It may not matter much when they are very young but it will matter later. The words we use are powerful and can cut to the core of our identity so it is important to practice saying things in a way that will touch on the behaviour that needs correcting but not their identity.

I may talk a good talk now and sound all aspirational. Sure, I know in theory how I want to parent but it is no guarantee that it is what will come out of my mouth when my child has pushed all of my buttons so far that I can do nothing other than act and speak instinctively (for me, it’s around 6 am after being repeatedly kicked in the ribs and asked ‘we go downstairs now’ 10 times in a row at increasing volume). In these situations, we sometimes react in ways that would normally be totally foreign to us. Our go-to response, in the spur of the moment, will often come from what we already know, and this is the moment when you look back and go ‘oh my goodness, this is just what my parent used to do that I swore I would never do’. For some, it may be a more damaging behaviour than you’d ever thought possible. It is normal to want to parent differently from our own parents, taking the good with us and throwing away the bad; however, in exasperation, anger or sheer tiredness, we may repeat patterns modeled to us by our parents that we never thought we would perpetrate in a million years.

Addressing behaviour without damaging personhood

The key to changing our own response comes with practice. We need to practice saying what we want our children to hear when it doesn’t matter and they are too young to understand. Practice is habit-forming, and habits will become our go-to response when our buttons are pushed.

I know I have to be quite intentional in how I speak to my children. I want them to be secure in the knowledge that I love them no matter how they behave. I love them because, well you know, because they are. It is not dependent on them behaving well or performing well in their studies or anything that they do, and I need my words to convey this as strongly as my actions otherwise one might cancel the other. Some children are way more sensitive to words than actions, and in doubt I would rather cover all corners.

In practice, it will probably look something like this:

if my child has done something wrong and I am having a talk with them about it, instead of saying ‘You were really naughty when you did this‘, I will say something like ‘you did a really naughty thing back then‘. It is a subtle difference but I think a significant one. What it is doing is addressing their behaviour separately from their identity as a person. A child who is constantly told that he is bad or wrong or not good enough will come to believe this to be the truth about them. It may well be a subconscious belief that when said out loud sounds irrational and ridiculous to their own ears but it will have shaped them as surely as one moment of being singled out by a bully in front of their peers may shape how a person conducts all their future relationships.

We all know that no matter how well-parented we are, all human beings are flawed and a bit screwed up by whatever life throws at them. Being more careful about our language around our children is only a small thing and goodness knows I haven’t got a clue whether my kids are going to turn out OK or not. But I’d rather be more intentional about the things I do notice that are within my power to change, as small as they may be.

Courageous Parenting: stepping away from the comparison wars

daring greatly - courageous parenting

A couple of days ago, I reviewed Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. It was an engaging and deeply challenging read, and I was so impacted that I decided to devote a couple more posts to discussing the contents.

Brown spends an entire chapter addressing Wholehearted parenting and has many wise and challenging things to say about our culture of comparison. This is one of those chapters where I just want to quote everything because all I’ll end up doing is paraphrase what she said and make a bad job of it. I managed to get it down to this one powerful message, that we can’t expect to teach our children how to become healthy adults if we can’t model it ourselves. No pressure or anything but she is so right of course.

 

“Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the ‘never enough’ culture, the question isn’t so much ‘are you parenting the right way?’ as it is ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be? In other words, if we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are. We can’t use fear, shame, blame, and judgment in our own lives if we want to raise courageous children. Compassion and connection – the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives – can only be learned if they are experienced. And our families are our first opportunities to experience these things.”

 

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but here in the UK, competitive parenting often feels like a real battle and it has a hideous name, the ‘mummy wars’. And it is SO easy to fall prey to that way of thinking, to toe that black and white line of ‘my way is the best way’ and everybody else’s different parenting choice borders on child abuse. Yes, it can go that far language-wise in some corners of the internet. Breastfeeding vs formula feeding, attachment parenting vs controlled crying, dummies, how many crisps, is he walking yet, which pre-school, is their lunchbox healthy enough, are they getting enough sun, the list goes on. And on. We compare, we worry, we agonize over every little choice and hope our little precious babies will turn out ok despite the fact that we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing. It’s EXHAUSTING.

I hear that whilst we can’t help but observe other parents do their thing, this way of comparing and judging others is not quite as relentless in some other places as it is in the UK. Why this should be I have absolutely no idea but whatever the reason it’s not that British parents care more about their offspring than anywhere else in the world. The reality, of course, is that we all parent differently and there are (mostly) no rights nor wrongs, if this wonderful forum thread about parental practices from around the world is anything to go by (although, no car seats? I did judge a little. So what, sue me).

Being human and all, whilst I feel I know myself better and this has led to being far less concerned about other people’s opinions than I was in my early twenties, there are nonetheless times when I have to fight against making comparisons. We all have our insecurities and there are a few areas where I feel unsure or ‘less than’; from time to time, I will read something or see someone who seems to have it more together, or whose child appears to do better, and I will doubt myself. I can’t help it, and there’s not much that can be done about the actual experience of these emotions. I do however have a choice in how I respond within and without myself. Should I express those feelings or not, should I share my opinion, should I lean into the discomfort and question my motives; in all cases my response should be led by compassion rather than judgment, and it goes both ways. I should be compassionate and not judgmental towards myself and towards the object of my discomfort too.

This is just one of the many things I have taken out of Brown’s chapter on parenting. For more, do check out her book.