School can wait

Some parents worry their kids won’t learn the language of their adopted country well enough. I tend to worry about the opposite. Many people ask me now whether my daughter is speaking Spanish yet. For the record, we lived in Spain for two months last year and five months this year so far.

I suppose if she had gone straight into kindergarten, then by now she would be speaking Spanish (after a fashion). She spends an hour or two once a week with a Spanish babysitter and she’s already starting to respond in Spanish. Surely I should be in a rush to help her learn Spanish as soon as possible, as young as possible. Otherwise she’ll already be behind the other kids when she starts school. Except that she won’t be starting school very soon anyway. Because it gets worse.

Do you really want to shock people? Make them leap to their feet and ask you But why? How could you?! Have them shake their heads disbelievingly as you walk away convinced that you will soon rue the day you made such a terrible decision? Try not enrolling your 3-year old in school. Judging by the reactions where we live in southern Spain this is tantamount to giving them a bedtime bottle of whiskey. Same in Paris. And a lot more places, I suspect.

I would have had to enrol my oldest last March if I wanted her to start this September at the grand old age of 3 years and 1 month. After much consideration, I decided not to. What a can of worms to open.

Do I not realise that starting late will put her at a disadvantage? Odd as this may sound, I don’t mind her being at a disadvantage for a while. Let me explain. I don’t really think that getting total immersion in Spanish five days a week would be the best thing just yet. It already takes a conscious effort to keep her French strong; so far her world is dominated by English. Preschool would reduce her exposure to French and English. English would survive, but I’m not sure French would. I’m not the only one in this situation. Peer influence is so much stronger than any parents’, so I am willing to put off – for a little while – the pride I’ll feel when my daughter starts spouting fluent Spanish.

If she were at school there’d be no more leisurely breakfasts with dad, and maybe no shared lunchtimes. Interactive French exposure would be limited to little more than busy weekends and short evenings – with only about 1h30 between dad finishing work and bedtime.

Besides, in her post 5 Myths About Raising Multilingual Kids one multilingual mum cites the misconception that “You must reinforce the environment language at home.” 

So how will I feel about her starting school aged four (just) and not understanding what anyone’s going on about? What if she can’t learn at the same speed as the rest?

I figure that just living here with a little Spanish babysitting, she’ll pick up enough to get by and not feel entirely lost. She won’t struggle learning to read, write or count. She already knows her numbers and letters, knows her right from her left, and can read a little in English (words like park, window, basket and splash, and in my opinion, enough to work out the rest on her own without any teacher). Converting all this to Spanish is easier than learning it in the first place. What’s more, reading Spanish is a doddle in comparison to English, given the simplified spelling and consistent pronunciation. Spanish is an easy language for a French-speaker – my decision might have been very different if she could go to school in Arabic.

This decision will affect her brother too. I’m guessing that within six months of starting school she’ll be starting to use Spanish with her little brother (who’ll then be 2 years old) as the language of play as I’ve seen happen in so many families where the community language was different to that spoken at home. So I’m also glad to stave off the influence of the majority language on him at an age when he’ll only just be starting to string sentences together in his mother and father tongues.

Finally, as eager as I am to return to a world of adult conversation, I do consider myself fortunate to be around as she makes those precious early discoveries about letters turning into words, about a banana looking oval if you bite it on a slant, and how sand makes for better cake dough when wet.

Colour Factor

That’s it: I’ve finally ordered my Colour-Factor Set. I can’t wait to start using it with my oldest. Created by Seaton Pollock in the early sixties, its a way of using 3D objects to represent the relationship between numbers. Pollock found it strange that so many kids hate maths and consider themselves bad at the subject. He wanted to overthrow traditional teaching methods which he blamed for putting pupils off maths. His new way was to teach maths using something other than numbers: a set of coloured blocks for making shapes which “behave” like numbers.

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You can do this orally, of course.

Many schools in Britain had a copy of these blocks in the seventies, but it seems most teachers didn’t know the method. I vaguely remember the remnants of a similar set kicking around at my primary school in the early nineties, but nothing was really done with them except perhaps to compare lengths. Now I didn’t do any maths at all after the age of 16, the British educational system being what it is. But I got so excited about the Colour-Factor Set I’ve even been reading books on mathematics – a first for me.

Apart from the major sleep debt that begins when you have a baby and just grows from there, I have grown myself a reading debt which I find equally disturbing, and any precious moments that I get with a book are gold dust to me. So it’s got to be a really good read.

Part of the reason I’ve invested my tiny reading allowance in this little-used, largely forgotten method is because it’s another gem from Anything School Can Do You Can Do Better, by Máire Mullarney. I already tried her approach to teaching literacy and in practice, it worked wonderfully: my three-year old now reads. So why not maths too? It looks fun, and the first phase of the method centres on playing with the blocks and doesn’t include any actual number work. I’m not planning on working on sums in the near future; rather, these blocks offer a way to start understanding numbers before even introducing them.

I also got really excited about this set because I need to visualise numbers and I tend to associate colours to number values anyway. I know how different it feels to succeed at something because I get it, and to succeed only through perseverance and memorisation. In the latter case you don’t bother taking things any further than you have to.

So far I’ve read the following books:

Colour-factor mathematics: A general introduction based on the colour factor set 

Colour-Factor Mathematics: The First Year Part 1: Pre-Number Mathematics [This is the pupil's book.]

Colour-Factor Mathematics Teachers’ Handbook to Parts 1 and 2 of The First Year 

They are short and have me more convinced than ever it is worth a try. Mullarney dedicated chapter 8 of her book to The Teaching of Number, and Colour Factor is discussed there (pages 36-40 or search for “color” à l’amércaine) if you want to check out her persuasive explanation, though without the blocks in front of you it’s a bit confusing. I’ll do regular updates on how it goes with the Colour-Factor, though to be honest since the first phase seems to be largely playing with blocks, there may not be a great deal to say. If you have any experience of Colour-Factor or similar methods, do share.

Wolf at the door?

I know I’m not the only parent in families with several languages to obsess over how much exposure our progeny get to each language. When I read other blogs or forums there’s often a sense of the struggle for survival. Parents racing to stay ahead of the majority language, an unstoppable wave. If we hesitate for but a moment, we’ll see the minority language(s) engulfed by it.

Just to update on our situation, Beirut Baby is nearly three, and Paris Baby is now ten months. I speak English to the kids, my husband speaks French (one of his three family languages) to them and together we two speak English and French. We have been living in Spain for a few months. We spend a lot of time with English friends and there aren’t many French living in the area.

I was delighted to realise that French had drawn level with English during the seven months we were in France. Now I hear her English stronger, both vocal and syntax. She has forgotten some words she used to use. A few times recently she was talking to her dad and turned to ask me a word in French to complete her sentence. And a couple of times when she’s upset and we were both present she has switched from French to English as if it were the easier choice in which to air her grievances.

I’m also concerned about little one. My first baby, born in Lebanon, was surrounded by far more French than my second has been here in Spain. We spoke a lot of French to friends and out shopping, especially when I was out of my depth for Arabic. Whereas here there is next to no French influence from outside the family. Her first few words were French, but I’d be very surprised if his were.

But it’s quite hard to boost the minority language without actually speaking it to your children. I want to stick to OPOL with her as I feel if I mix languages soon enough the kids will mix too and then take the path of least resistance (ie English only). And when she goes to school Spanish will overtake English as the majority language and her dad and I will both have our work cut out keeping our respective languages alive.

So here are a few ways I’ve been trying to keep in touch with the minority language. Please do add any suggestions.

  • writing a menu for the dinner as I prepare it. I write out the meal in French for daddy and my daughter suggests what drinks and desserts we might offer him. “A yoghurt? Ok, how would daddy say it? Ok, yaourt, and shall we add melon?
  • writing little notes and messages for daddy: “Veux-tu venir manger…maintenant? dans 10 minutes? jamais?” (Do you want to come and eat…now? in 10 minutes? never?)
  • playing a game and then prepare to play it with her dad.

It’s not much but it helps her not to put French aside all day long, and just as important, it sparks lively vocab-rich conversations with her dad over dinner.

Loving letters

Last month’s post on my two-year old starting to read was something of a non-sequitur. It’s been quite a long journey, in fact, as my little Beiruti learnt her letters over a year ago. When it comes to learning of this sort, I’ve been very influenced by a book written in another era entirely by a mother who homeschooled her 11 children in the fifties and sixties. It’s called Anything School Can Do You Can Do Better, by Máire Mullarney. It’s a book I discovered on the shelf at my parents’ place, a remnant from when we kids were taught at home for a few years.

In Mullarney’s time, people apparently thought children were not capable of learning much at all before six or seven, and should only learn from teachers, not from parents who would only impair their education. Now of course, society has swung in the opposite direction. Parents need to be reminded that kids need unstructured play time, and that you can overdo extra-curricular activities. Early learning is so in vogue it is almost passé. The concept has been bought up by big business and turned into a brand. Every toddler out there has a set of stacking cups and a touch-and-feel book. The misconceptions that the author battled with are no longer commonplace. All the same, I found some gems in this book which really hit home.

Máire talks of a stage in the process of learning to read when things fell into place and her children’s delight was such that they would follow her around the house begging: “Listen to me reading!” This book influenced me on several fronts:

  1. The age for offering letters
  2. Capitals vs lower case
  3. Letter sounds vs names

With regard to the first point, the author discusses how children have a phase or period of opportunity when they are particularly interested in a certain skill. That may come before they go to school. Learning should be a question of offering a chance to a child. If the time is right they will jump right in. If they are uninterested, put it aside and only bring it out later. Like the author, I offered my Beiruti her first letters at 13 months. She fell in love and knew them all by 16 months.

This argument swings both ways because it also means going at the child’s pace and not rushing them. More about that later.

The other argument for an early introduction that struck home to me was that of suitability. What kind of story book could you offer a five- or six-year old that is just beginning to learn to read which would actually be interesting to him/her? Basic phrases like “a big box on a mat”, accessible to a novice reader, are fun for a two- or three-year old, but rather uninspiring for the runaway imagination of older kids.

I went to school aged 5 and 1/2, and I would have been thoroughly bored if all I could read were phrases that simple. The English language is partly to blame. Bear in mind that the complexity of English spelling means that even a word like “the” must wait for phase two in the learning process (in phonetic reading, at least). Fortunately for me, I had been taught to read at home, so when I did go to school, I was allowed to choose what I pleased from the bookshelf.

I wanted my daughter to take the same pleasure in reading as the author’s children did, indeed as I did. When she comes tugging at my sleeve, saying, “Please mummy, I want more words,” meaning she wants me to write her a word to sound out, I know things are going the right way.

More on the second and third points later.

French catches up

My very British Beiruti: "Look, rain!"

My very British Beiruti: “Look, rain!”

It has finally happened. I’m finally seeing the effect of living in France on my Beirut baby’s language skills. Though she consistently speaks French to her dad, English used to be her default language for singing to herself or talking to herself while playing. Now not only is she starting to speak and sing to herself in French more, her sentences are getting longer and clearer.

Last week she managed to break the lightbulb in the lamp in her room which she loves to turn on and off. Annoyed at not having a functioning lamp, she decided that the best course of action was to exchange it for the one in our room. After all, it looks the same and – as yet – still works. “S’il te plaît avoir celui dans la chambre de mummy et daddy et allumer?” she asked. (Please have the one in mummy and daddy’s bedroom and turn on?)

Suddenly her French has drawn almost level with her English. I say almost, because I’ve not heard her use any kind of “when” or “if” construction as she does in English: “Can I have a yoghurt when I finished the lasagne?” Or temporal references such as: “Last time we play with the game with the girls and it’s broken.” Though she can string a sequence of actions together in French using après: “Toi tu fais celui-ci et après moi fais l’autre.

It took nearly four months in France to make an audible difference to her French skills. Granted, they were busy months, finding a flat and having a baby, all the while planning our next move. We haven’t had a lot of time for French play dates. It was easier to just hang out with her cousins who speak mostly English at home. She is always out and about with me in town and with our adult French friends. But she hasn’t been to any school or childcare that would have brought her into daily contact with children who speak only French. Had I put her in playschool it would really have been an immersion. But language doesn’t dictate all our life choices.

It goes to show that while children learn languages with amazing ease, they will only do so in the right circumstances, that is, if they have a decent level of exposure and see them as living languages. After all, they can entirely unlearn a language they once spoke if they stop hearing it altogether at a young age. It becomes a dead language, inaccessible, locked away at the back of the mind.

French should never be that way for my daughter, but I don’t want it to be only a passive skill either, where she understands but struggles to express herself. So I’m delighted to see her making progress in French, the way she knows her little stories off by heart and loves to be quizzed on them and how after the last page is read and the book closed she reopens it with a hopeful “On recommence?”