MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

English, the baffling language March 22, 2012

Poster available from BusyTeacher.org

I’m reading The Mother Tongue – English & How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson. I keep bursting out with laughter as he describes the quirks of English. Here is an excerpt from the first page:

Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one tells a lie but the truth, that a person who says “I could care less” means the same thing as someone who says “I couldn’t care less”, … that when a person says to you, “How do you do?” he will be taken aback if you reply, with impeccable logic, “How do I do what?”

With our youngest daughter in Spanish Immersion School, and thus learning to read and write in Spanish, it is interesting for me to see how she is transferring her knowledge of reading from one language to the other. This has happened to our older daughter too, although the other way around: after learning to read in English, she can now read Spanish and Afrikaans too. I think that in Spanish the words are spelled much more phonetically, just like in Afrikaans. English spelling just doesn’t make sense to me. So when our youngest tries to read words like island, thought, ache, and which, it is no wonder that she is having difficulty!

How did you learn to read another language than your mother tongue? Did you have difficulty with it?

 

Being a bilingual / multilingual family February 16, 2012

I was wondering about what to name this blog post. Are we being a multilingual family, or are we becoming a multilingual family? Maybe we are always becoming?

Reading time at home means books in a mix of three languages

It is said that at least half of the world’s population is bilingual. And many of those are multilingual. The broad definition of a multilingual is someone who can communicate in more than one language. This can be through speaking, writing or signing, or through listening and reading. There is an interesting new book by Michael Erard, Babel No More, about polyglots: people who can communicate in multiple languages. Poly (Greek: πολύς) means “many”, and glot (Greek: γλώττα) means “language”.

In our family, my husband and I grew up in South Africa, speaking Afrikaans, and learning English (the Queen’s version), starting in elementary school at about age 10. Our first language, or mother tongue, will always be Afrikaans, but we are pretty competent in English, with Jaco having written 3 books so far.

Our girls were born in the USA, but have heard both Afrikaans and English since birth. I guess this makes them simultaneous bilinguals. When our youngest started Kindergarten, we opted for her to go to the same public school as her sister, but to be in a Two Way Bilingual Immersion Spanish class. In this class, balanced numbers of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers are taught together, so that both groups of students serve as language learners at different times. It has been a wonderful experience: it is amazing to see the kids grow in language ability, but also to see friendships develop over the 3 years between all of the kids.

As our youngest is becoming a competent reader, writer and speaker in Spanish, we realized that we needed to learn Spanish too, since it helps to understand when we listen to her practice reading, and when we help her practice spelling words! Our family spent 3 months during 2010 in Chiapas, Mexico. All four of us attended a Spanish Language school in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Even though it wasn’t always easy to be immersed in a language you cannot speak, it is the quickest way to learn and we made a lot of progress.

Back in our regular life now for over a year, it has been difficult to keep up our Spanish vocabulary. We’re trying to find creative ways to hear, speak and read Spanish so that all our hours of Language School will not be in vain. Our oldest daughter is taking piano lessons in Spanish, and I recently started attending adult Spanish classes again. We also listen to a lot of Spanish music at home.

We have realized that we need to spend more time in South Africa if we want our kids to be able to read and write in Afrikaans, and not just speak it. So we’re planning to spend two months close to family in South Africa this year, immerse the kids in language and culture, and work on their reading skills. Hold your thumbs (the South African/British version of crossing your fingers) for us!

I think what I’ve realized most in our multilingual journey, is that it is a process. There is no goal post that we have to reach. There is no path we need to follow, since this is our own journey. What works for one of us, may not work for the other ones in the family. We’re figuring it out along the way, making mistakes and learning all the time. And that is OK.

What do you do to encourage multilingualism in your family?

 

 
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