From the time I found I out I was pregnant with my first child in Taiwan, I have been committed to developing my children's English language skills to the level of a native speaker in my home country of New Zealand. I expect my children to be able pass University exams and to present themselves well when speaking and writing English. I also crave for them to have a passion for, or at least an educated appreciation of, quality literature and poetry. My children are still young (eight and six years old), but with my series of articles on Taiwan elementary school education options being published in Centered on Taipei magazine, and after observing how they are faring in a New Zealand school right now, I thought it timely to share some resources and strategies I have used from birth through to 2013. This article focuses on the first two or three years.
We lived with my husband's parents in an apartment for the first six years of my eldest son's life. My husband and father-in-law both speak English, but spoke mostly Mandarin to my son. I started singing Nursery Rhymes and traditional songs to my son from birth. If parents can't remember any childhood songs, pregnancy is a great time to start a music collection, and to listen to the music, too. I also had a collection of picture books, bath books, and cloth books ready. Some of my favorite titles include:
|That's Not My Puppy - one of a series of cute sensory books.|
Books were considered an integral part of both of my children's toy collections. There was always one in my bag or on their strollers. At just a few months old, they would look at the pages whilst waiting for my husband and I at cafes or at friends' houses. For many expats, this is how their children started their literary journeys. However, many of my Taiwanese families and friends were amazed that children so young could sit still and enjoy books. My view is, just like carseats and bike helmets, these things can be integrated smoothly and without fuss at a very young age, and using them can end up being as natural as eating and sleeping. (My children go hardly anywhere without a book, even now.)
The Spoken Word
Whilst I agree that baby talk, babble and cooing to your young child have their place in developing intimacy and communication, I feel there has been a considerable "dumbing-down" of language used when talking to young children, which in turn can limit their vocabulary and hinder reading development later on, particularly if you are the only native speaker communicating with your child. I believe parents have a responsibility to let children hear the beauty of many English words and phrases, and to model grammatically correct sentences to their children. Getting the level right can be a lot of trial and error, especially when children are very young.
This is where poetry and rhymes can prove a delightful way to share your culture and language with your children. My Taiwanese family often say they are "amazed" at how many rhymes and poems my children know. It's not rocket science; the more you recite, the more your children enjoy and retain. Nursery Rhymes are still a great starting point, but there is also a mountain of contemporary poetry youngsters can enjoy. Start with The Poetry Foundation's dedicated Children's Section, but don't be afraid to make up little rhymes of your own.
When out and about, be diligent about pointing out things in the world around you. Not only the obvious buildings, trees, and signs, but also the names of flowers, insects, blades of grass, or a fading rainbow. Use words like fading, brilliant, shiny, dull, enormous, serious... pink can be magneta or baby pink, red can be crimson or flame red. Talk to your child face-to-face, one-on-one, and with affection and passion for the child, the language, and the world around you. As best as you can, keep pronunciation clear. I am always aware that in Taiwan, my children's English language development is a responsibility that falls squarely on my shoulders. I try to use all the good lessons I learned as a child, no matter how annoying I may have found them at the time.
Building the Reading Habit
My Taiwanese family do not read for pleasure in front of the children. My husband freely admits that, at age five, his son had read more books than he had in his entire life. I grew up in a family of readers, where we spent time together daily in the living room, each of us with our own reading material. Mum would often sneak into her room for a "bit of a read". We were read bedtime stories every night. The material was varied, that's for sure!
I've worked really hard to develop this reading habit in my children. From the time they were very small, I would read a book to them at each quiet point in the day, and at bedtime. I did try to encourage the family to read Chinese stories to the children, even purchasing Chinese language picture books, but it was not successful. Now the children are elemenatry-aged, it is apparent what effect this has had on their reading choices. I am a bit concerned Chinese will be seen as a chore and English a pleasure, which is good for their English but also a bit sad.
The Taipei City Library has a huge selection of books for children. Here is a quick how-to on the library, on my blog. You can also refer to pages 12-13 of Centered on Taipei's May 2012 edition for a comprehensive instruction guide I wrote for library users. If you want to purchase English books, Book Depository has a free shipping policy and books are reasonably-priced. You can also visit or contact the Second-Hand bookstore in Jubei.
When the children are very little, you can spend hours poring over the pictures in the picture books. You don't have to read the story word-for-word. Illustrations in quality children's books tell many stories of their own. Look for details. The colors, style of illustration, expressions, clothing, even the paper, have been chosen with care and reason. As children get older, you can enjoy many longer stories together. I will share some favorites in my next post.