Monday, 10 February 2020

Why won't you speak: The Perfectionist Child

Last week we've talked about my most frequent type of client: The Perfectionist. Perfectionists frequently think they are bad languages when they just think differently from people who are traditionally good at languages.

The perfectionist child can frustrate bilingual parents. - đź“·Ryan Franco on Unsplash

Unsurprisingly, most of the children I tutor for Play&Learn also happen to fall under this umbrella. The initial consultation with the parents normally goes like this: "She understands most of what I say in German but responds more and more in English."
To parents who want to bring their child up bilingually The Perfectionist Child is an often frustrating challenge and many parents will give up (often these Children then come back to the language as Perfectionist Adults who think they suck at languages).

If you are trying to pass on a minority language to your little Perfectionist here are a few steps you can take to help make the process less frustrating for everyone.

  •  Forgive Yourself
    The Perfectionist Child normally comes with at least one, sometimes two parents who feel like they failed as parents. Bilingualism is meant to be easy, so it must mean you have failed as parents. STOP! Bilingual parenting is hard. Lots of parents struggle and many give up. If you are speaking to your child in your language, you have probably passed on a lot of knowledge your Little Perfectionist is not ready to use yet. Guilt is an unproductive emotion and coupled with frustration is likely to slow your progress down. Acknowledge that you are doing your best/ and start again on a clean slate. 
  • Understand why your Child is Reluctant to Speak
    Before you fix any issues, it might be worth to do some detective work and find out what it is that's holding them back. There is a variety of reasons why your child might be reluctant to speak the minority language. If your child tends towards perfectionism, it might simply prefer not to make a mistake out loud. Language acquisition is a prime opportunity for mistakes so your child might opt for the language he is most comfortable in. But make sure that there aren't any other reasons such as negative responses / attitudes from friends / family members / teachers. It's also very likely that your child simply doesn't see the point of the minority language, especially if you are the only speaker in her environment. If you have reasons to suspect special needs, you might need to change your approach post diagnosis.
  • Speak your Language Consistently
    It might seem tempting to give up if your child is indifferent or even hostile to your efforts but make your approach as consistent and predictable as possible. If you are already speaking to him in your language only, great. If the majority language has slipped into family conversation, gradually re-introduce your language. The more negotiable your use of the language is, the more likely you are to default to the majority language. This is easier said than done, especially with a Perfectionist child. The key to success is consistency. Pick a time / day where you will speak in your language to your child. Do this with as much agreement co-operation from your child as you can. Pick a day or activity together that you will always do in your language. Positive, low key activities such as boardgames, arts and craft, baking are ideal because they are fun, have a set vocabulary that you can gradually expand on and you can use instructions / recipe in your language. If you pick an activity your child will probably try to negotiate you out of speaking so it's important to agree some clear rules in advance of the activity and stick to them. This is an example set, feel free to adjust for your family:
    1. I will speak my language, you don't have to.
    2. If you don't want me to speak my language, we will put activity away and do something else.
    Naturally, it helps if you pick an activity that your child really enjoys. Once you have established a routine you can build on this.
  • Model and Practise Moving on from Mistakes
    Like in life, mistakes are unavoidable in language learning. The Perfectionist Child is anxious to avoid mistakes at all cost, so it's important how you deal with mistakes: theirs, yours and everybody elses.
    If a broken glass is a massive drama, you beat yourself up about that silly thing you said three hours ago, if your partner is in big trouble for picking up the wrong apples from the shop, you will reinforce that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. If you aknowledge a mistake as something unfortunate, that you won't do next time, hopefully your child will be more comfortable to try, even if it might result in a mistake.
  • Praise liberally, Correct sparingly
    You may have heard of the study, that people perform best in businesses that have a positive feedback - negative feedback ratio of 5:1. They are definitely onto something. In order to improve, we need to occasionally be corrected, but if we only get told our mistakes it very quickly feeds the narrative that we should just stop trying. This is true for adults, how much more impact will a negative comment (and every correction, no matter how kindly worded is a negative comment) on a confident child? How much on The Perfectionist? Watch your child and praise trying new, difficult thing that might make The Perfectionist anxious, Be careful to praise the effort and bravery of your Perfectionist, rather than cleverness or correctness. When it comes to mistakes, concentrate on frequent mistakes or mistakes that could lead to your child being misunderstood. The best way here is to repeat the phrase correctly and praise your child if they repeat it back correctly but don't push for them to repeat.
I hope you will find these tips useful with your Little Perfectionist. If you have a question about bilingual parents, feel free to e-mail me or comment below. I will be pleased to help.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Children's books for German learners: Wir Kinder aus dem Möwenweg by Kirsten Boie

Suitable: Age 8+  (Level A2+)

Kirsten Boie: Wir Kinder aus dem Möwenweg

This series follows the children of Möwenweg, a newly build row of terraced houses on the outskirts of a German town, through the eyes of heroine Tara. Möwenweg is the absolutely best place to live for Tara – the builders may have not gotten around to put Tarmac on the road, so roller blading is out but right beyond their houses are only fields teaming with cows and wild rabbits. Once, Tara even saw a deer.

It never gets boring in Möwenweg: the children play in mud desserts, hunt criminals and sleep in tents.
This book is a brilliant book to read to kids even if they have only just started learning German. If the child is a confident reader, this is also great for independent reading. The stories are short and the beautiful illustrations by Katrin Engelking help the children to follow the narrative easily. The stories are from the everyday life of German children and contain a lot of useful vocabulary as well the opportunity to discuss cultural differences.
This book is the beginning of a series and as such a great way for beginners to build up their vocabulary. 

This book series has been turned into an animated TV series which can be legally streamed on the website of German public broadcaster ZDF when the series is being aired on TV. DVDs are available on Amazon.*

*Amazon Affiliate link. If you like this product, please support this free blog by buying the book through our link. We will receive a small commission.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Why do I Suck at Languages: The Perfectionist.

Spoiler alert: you probably don't.

But let's start at the beginning: why is it that some people attend years of language classes and seem unable to compose a simple sentence?
These people all have something in common: they are perfectionists in some way shape or form.

The Perfectionist, be they adult or child, is by far my best customer. The Perfectionist sometimes spends years in beginners classes feeling like they are treading water. If you recognise yourself in this statement, this blog is for you. I am going to break down why you feel like you are not making any progress and sign post small steps you can take to help you gain confidence.

When learning a language is a frustration. đź“· Andrew Hunter on Unsplash.

Language courses are made for people who are good at languages. 
The problem: Modern language courses, if they are worth their salt, put great emphasis on speaking. They do this because this is best way to help students to actually speak the language, as opposed to reciting phrases and memorising grammar rules. People who are traditionally good at languages are, generally speaking, comfortable getting stuck in, making mistakes and picking up the rules as they go along. In other words: the exact opposite approach that the Perfectionist would take. The Perfectionist's instinct is to withdraw into their comfort zone, study all the vocab and rules available and only come out when they can make perfect sentences.
What can you do: I know you don't want to hear this, but the only way to start speaking is to start speaking. It's ok to take baby steps. You can even start by yourself for a while. Practise in front of the mirror, your reflection is not going to judge you. Then it's time to get yourself out there. Book a class or join a conversation group.* Turn up and speak to the teacher/organiser that you just want to listen for a couple of sessions. Give yourself a limit though, otherwise it will never feel like the right time.
Once you reach that limit, take the next step: give yourself the goal to speak once during the session. No matter, if you only answer a simple question with a simple answer. Then up your speaking quota as you go along.

Languages are a code that seems completely logical whilst being riddled with inconsistencies

The problem:
In short the language you are learning is not an exact science.
This problem is one big reason why you HAVE to take a deep breath and speak with another human of your chosen language in order to achieve a decent level of competence.
After 12 years of teaching German I would be a very rich woman if I had a pound every time I said: "Yes, by rules of logic this should be Dative, but it's actually Accusative". Languages are spoken by humans, humans have dialects, rebel against stuffy language rules and they make mistakes. That means that grammatical rules you learn in class, might be ignored by a high proportion of native speakers.
What you can do: Look at the situation philosophically. According to Wikipedia there are between 90-95 million people who speak German as a first language. As someone who grew up in Germany, I can assure you that every single one of these almost 100 million people (I include myself in this) bastardizes the beautiful German language to some degree. As someone living in London, surrounded by native English speakers, I can confirm that this is also true for every English speaker (even the Queen is dropping her  Ts when nobody's listening).
So if at any point, you forget that it's Der Tisch and Die Tasche, that's okay. German is hard, languages are hard. Give yourself a break.

Translating makes you feel safe

The problem: You're naturally thinking in the language you already speak. In the early days of learning your new language it's very tempting to just translate your thoughts verbatim. There's only probem: as a beginner you neither have the vocabulary, nor the grammar to translate your thoughts. As a result, translating your complex thoughts leads to only one thing: frustration.
What you can do: Keep the end goal in mind. No, you won't sound sophisticated saying the equivalent of: "Yesterday I go cinema. Film was good." But remember, you're a beginner and that's ok. So start of simple and add one improvement per session. Before you know it, you will be able to express more and more complex thoughts without taking a detour via translation.

Too many notes

The problem: The only thing worse than too many notes is no notes at all (but with The Perfectionist that doesn't tend to be a problem). Taking notes is a vital part of your language studies. Handwritten notes are not only a very useful study aid, they also help you commit any information to memory. But like everything else in life: it's possible to have to have too much of a good thing. Having to memorise 3 pages of detailed notes within a week leads us back to our old nemesis frustration and self-doubt.
What you can do: I'm not going to waste both our time by suggesting you take fewer notes during class. We both know that the thought of missing something important will be nagging in the back of your mind, distracting you from the objective.
So instead I'm going to suggest that you take as many notes during class as you want, as long as you can still take part in the actual class.
When you get home, sit down with your notes and a blank A4 sheet of paper. Make a cheat sheet from your notes reduced to the essentials of the lesson and limit yourself to a manageable amount of vocab. I suggest 5 words per week (meaning 260 words per year). This is your study aid for the week and only when you are happy that you have absorbed all the information and vocab from your cheat sheet move on to more words and information.

A foreign language? đź“·John Moses Bauan

Perfectionists are great

As a child I quite liked the idea of becoming a scientist, but gave up on this idea when maths and exactitude became more important. In other words: I am one of these mavericks who just start talking in the new language and work out the grammar later. As Herr LLH and my typos in this blog will certify, I am not a detail person. This is a disadvantage for a budding physicist, but great if you want to learn a language fast. Meaning I am on the opposite end of the spectrum of perfectionism. In order to do tasks that require accuracy, I need to go against my instinct.
Perfectionists are amazing scientists, programmers and mathematicians. We need the Perfectionist but when the Perfectionist wants to learn a language they need to adapt the way their mind works. If and when they face the challenge, they make great linguists.