Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads. The podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about resources for families where children speak two or more languages. We hear about the amazing resources put together by the PEaCH Project when I talk to Ute Limacher-Riebold, language consultant and mother of three multilingual children and herself something of a polyglot. And in Hot of the Press, we’re off to Singapore to find out whether how much time children spend engaging with multimedia resources has an impact on their development in their two languages. Keep listening to find out more.

Hot off the Press

Sharon Unsworth: In Hot off the Press, I tell you about a new piece of research on bilingual children. I summarize the most important findings for you and try to translate them into practice. Today, I’m talking about a piece of research that looks at the impact of multimedia input in bilingual children’s homes on their language development in both languages. Now, multimedia mostly refers to screen time, so watching TV or watching films, whether that’s on TV or DVDs or Netflix or YouTube playing computer games and using apps on tablets and smartphones. But it’s not only screen time, it also includes listening to songs on CDs or reading e-books while not really reading e-books like electronic books where you read and listen at the same time. Often they include some kind of animation. Now there’s plenty of research showing that too much screen time is not a good thing for children’s development. But there is some evidence to suggest that at least certain types of multimedia may help children’s language development. And whether we like it or not, screens are a big part of many children’s lives from very early on. Now, for bilingual families, the use of such multimedia is one way to boost how much input your children get in their heritage language. And they can also be used to provide extra exposure to the school language. The question is whether this really has the desired effect, and that’s what the piece of research I’m talking about today investigates. So it asks whether multimedia input at home can help children’s language learning in both languages. So the dominant language in the country that they’re growing up in and the heritage language or the language that they speak at home. And the research also asks what matters most, how much input children get from TV apps and digital books, etc., or whether they get multimedia input from different sources. So, so not just TV, but also apps and CDs or whatever.

Sharon Unsworth: This study was carried out in Singapore by Sabrina Sun He and Yin Bin. Singapore is a really interesting place when it comes to multilingualism. So it has four official languages English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil and English predominates in many areas of life. For example, education, in the government and when members of different ethnic groups communicate with each other. This dominance of English means that children may have limited input in their home or heritage language. So the other three languages. And this study, the focus is on children who had Mandarin Chinese as their heritage language and this was the only language that they spoke at home. There were around 200 children who took part and they were aged 4 to 5.

Sharon Unsworth: So what the children did was three language tests, two on vocabulary and one on the knowledge of grammar. So the vocabulary tests looked at what’s called vocabulary breadth. So that’s whether they knew the meaning of different words. So how many different words do children know? And the other one looked at vocabulary depth. So that’s whether they knew lots of different words on the same topic. So they had to, for example, in one minute say as many words as they knew relating to food. And in the grammar tests they had to match sentences to pictures, and they did this in both languages, so both in Mandarin and in English. The parents also took part. They had to complete a detailed questionnaire asking them about the language situation at home, and in particular about the number of hours children spent watching TV films, listening to CDs, digital books or eBooks, and playing computer games or apps. And what the researchers did then was to use this information to calculate the amount of exposure to English via multimedia, so the number of hours that they had exposure to English via multimedia and how diverse this exposure was. So the number of different sources, the number of different types of multimedia children heard English in, and they did the same then for Mandarin too.

Sharon Unsworth: And what did they find? Well, first of all, they found that the children scored better on English than on Mandarin. And that’s in line with research that the same group had done before. And in terms of multimedia, they found that its effect differed per language. So for English, then, neither the amount nor the diversity of the sources of multimedia exposure mattered. So neither were related to children’s scores in English. This was different for Mandarin, though. So what mattered then for Mandarin was how diverse children’s exposure was in terms of multimedia, rather than how much exposure they got from multimedia. So it’s the number of different types of multimedia rather than the number of hours using multimedia that mattered. Why should exposure to diverse sources of multimedia matter then for Mandarin? Hearing Mandarin in a number of different contexts may have provided children with a richer vocabulary and different grammatical structures than they would normally hear in their day to day conversations with parents and siblings. The authors also suggest that some multimedia resources, for example, animated books, can help children whose language skills are perhaps a bit weaker to understand the message more easily. This is about being able to both see and hear a story as well as reading it. So exposure to a range of different sources in terms of multimedia seems to matter then for the heritage language, but the amount of exposure didn’t. Why should that be the case? Well, some types of screen time are more beneficial to children’s language development than others. And in this study, the researchers had no control over the type of multimedia children were exposed to. So it’s possible that the programs, for example, that some children were watching or the multimedia activities that they were engaged in weren’t ideal. They may have been too difficult in terms of their language proficiency or inappropriate in terms of the general development. More will not necessarily be better then. So the researchers concluded that getting heritage language input from a wider variety of sources was better. But they didn’t investigate which sources, so which types of multimedia specifically led to improvements. So we don’t know that from this particular study.

Sharon Unsworth: What can you learn from this study as a parent? Well, finding different sources of exposure in your child’s heritage language may help them to develop that language more quickly, looking for a new source of heritage language input was in fact the Kletsheads Quick and Easy a couple of episodes ago. So don’t just think about TV and films, but also look, for example, for audio books or animated books or listen to music or even to podcasts for children. And as a teacher or speech and language therapists, you can, of course, give this same piece of advice to the parents that you are working with. Talk about the number of different sources of multimedia input that the children get in their heritage language and suggest new sources that they could tap into. If you want to know more about this particular study, take a look in the shownotes, you’ll find the link there. It’s freely accessible online so you can go and read it if you would like to.


Let’s Klets!

Ute Limacher-Riebold: My name is Ute Limacher-Riebold and I live near Leiden in the Netherlands. I speak German and sometimes Swiss-German and Italian and Dutch and English with my children. But I also speak French, a bit of Spanish, and I’m learning Korean. So what I do, I’m a language consultant with a background in linguistics and phonology and intercultural communication trainer, and I help families like mine who are multilingual, multicultural, maintain their languages whilst living abroad and whilst embracing and welcoming other languages. So it’s a little bit complex.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, well, I think you’ve given us a good illustration of the complexity of what it is to be multilingual. And you are very multilingual. I knew you were multilingual, but not that multilingual. It’s great to have you here. So normally in Let’s Klets we talk to either a professional or a parent. You are wearing two hats here so we can benefit from both perspectives. So tell us a bit about your family then. Who speaks what language with whom? How many children have you got? Let’s start with that.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes, I have three children. They are all teenagers. My son is 19. My daughter’s, twins, are almost 16 and we speak mainly German in the family. It’s a long story because we changed the strategies and also the dominant language in our family twice. So at the moment we are speaking mainly German, but we also speak Swiss-German once a week, really a day and whenever we want to. So we will let our children lead and our self lead a little bit in the long language choice at home. But we also speak English, which is the school language of my children. So we welcome that language in the family of course, and Dutch, because we live in the Netherlands and Italian every now and then. My son likes to speak Italian with me and my daughters understand it and speak it a little. So we all have very different language proficiencies across all the languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. And I’m curious to hear when you said you switched the dominant language in your family several times, because I think at least that sounded like a conscious decision. Was it a conscious decision?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: It was conscious, yes. The first time it was when my daughters started to speak. A few months after they started to speak, they developed a secret language among twins, which is usually considered something that happens to twins that are abandoned. But my twins were not abandoned, so I thought, well, it will be over and pass. It’s just a phase, but when my son and I were really struggling to understand them because they were isolating themselves in the family and then also in the crèche by speaking also only that that secret language. So we sat down with my son, who was almost five at that time, and we discussed if we could change something in the language use at home. And so he agreed on speaking German, which was already a language that we are speaking, my husband and I among ourselves, us two. So he was already exposed to that and he was very enthusiastic. And after a few weeks, my daughters stopped speaking the secret language and we continued with German, but Italian and Swiss-German, which were the languages that I and my husband were speaking one on one with our children. They were always in the background, so they didn’t disappear from one day to the other. Absolutely not, because this is not what you do. You want to maintain them. But they were a bit more in the background, so they are still there. So they are still in in our daily lives. The next shift was when they went to a Dutch crèche and went to Dutch courses and also after school activities in Dutch. We welcomed more and more Dutch at home and later when they started school in English, we also welcomed English. So at this point now we have German, English and Dutch in the foreground and Italian, Swiss-German in the background, but still there.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. I’m curious to know how you approach talking to a five year old about the languages spoken at home. Because, you know, I know this is something that I also say it’s good to talk to your child about being multilingual, but I think it can be quite daunting as a parent. And I speak for myself there too, to know how to do that, especially when the children are quite young. I mean, mine are a bit older now. They’re nine, nearly nine and 11. So you can have that conversation.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes. We sat down with him. The daughters were not there. My daughters were not present. So it was really a conversation between my husband, my my son and I. And we were describing him, “Yes, we see that you struggle with speaking and playing with your sisters. And Mommy is also a bit challenged this moment because we don’t understand them. So we need to find a solution. What could we do? Which language do you think they would rather want us to speak?” So we we didn’t put the main decision on him. It was about understanding the situation and finding a solution together.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: So there was also Dutch. He said: “Oh, so Dutch because I go to the Dutch crèche, the girls go to the Dutch crèche, why not Dutch?” And then we said: “Yeah, you know, but we at home we speak now, daddy speaks this, yeah, he says the things in Swiss-German, mummy in Italian.” It was not that we were talking about the language but we were actually using it then and he, like I was saying “Voui parlare in Italiano?” and my husband was: “… Sweizerdeutsch reden?” and then we asked: “Möchtest du lieber das wir einfach Deutsch weiter sprechen wie Melanie?” that was the babysitter. And he then said: “like Melanie”. And so we agreed on trying this out for a week. Then we sat together again and we said: “How do you think it’s it’s going?” “Oh, it’s good. Yeah, it’s easy.” And then we try it for another week. And I observed him and saw that he was much more engaged in interaction with his sisters and they were much more open to play with him. And so I saw the reaction from all sides was positive. And so we went actually from week to week to see how it goes, if it’s improving. And when I heard my my one of my daughters reply in German the first time, I just jumped inside. I said, okay, this is working. Let’s, let’s see how it’s going on in the next weeks and months. But I made it very clear for my son that he can always come to us and say, I don’t feel at ease, I don’t like it. But he never did. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s great. It’s good to know that you can. Well, I think two things that that listeners can take away from that. One is that multilingual families are a dynamic place to be. Things change and that’s okay. And they will continue to change as children get older. And you can play a role in that as a as a parent, but also with your children. And also that it’s good to involve children in these kinds of discussions right. Often we talk about them, but not necessarily to them or with them. Now, of course, as we said at the start, you’re here not only as a parent, but also as a professional. So maybe can you tell us a bit about what you do with bilingual families, multilingual families in your role as a language consultant?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yeah, this role is language consultant for multilingual families entails that families contact me or parents contact me just to ask some questions that they have. And then I try to get a broader picture about the language use they have. The kind of communicators parents are and also the kind of communicators their children are and what kind of social contexts and everyday contexts they are living in, in order to have as objective and clear picture as possible to give them the support and advice if they want to, and ideas on how to improve the language use or motivate the children and also the parents very often starts with the parents. You feel like you need to do something, you don’t know what, and you feel guilty that your child is not responding or that the things are not working like it should be. Because research says that if you do this, it should be working or it works with many families and your family then maybe reacts in a different way. And so trying to find out what works from a professional part and from a very practical part is, is very often, I find it very interesting and fascinating, but I know that it can be very challenging for the parents and this is where I support them.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I completely recognise that sometimes that children don’t do what research tells you that they’re going to do. I mean, I know that full well from my own experience as a mother and a researcher. And of course, you know, much of the research we do well, most of it is on groups. There are always exceptions to the average or differences from the average. And so it can be a challenge, as you said, as a parent, to know what to do when your child is behaving in a way that’s maybe unexpected. Now, I know you’re involved with the PEaCh Project. That’s one of the reasons why I asked you to come on the podcast. We’ve mentioned the PEaCH Project already on the podcast. Can you tell us about it? So how did the project come to be and what what does it set out to do?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes. So the PEaCH Project is an Erasmus+ project and it stands for preserving and promoting Europe’s cultural and linguistic heritage through empowerment of bilingual children and families, I might add maybe also multilingual, because many families have more than two or three or four even languages at home. So this project supports European families that raise their bilingual, multilingual children in a broader sense. What we did was to publish a free guide for parents that is now available on the site in English, Spanish, German, Italian, French and Romanian and other translations are in the making. And here we try to answer, well we answered many questions parents have about child’s language development and how one can support the child, and also find practical tips and activities that help understanding, speaking, reading and writing in multilingual or bilingual children. To do this, in a proud way so to also foster the pride of using the language.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think, obviously I’ve read the booklet. I think it’s a great resource. It’s also it looks really good as well. And it’s full of, as you said, not only of information based on research, but many practical tips. So in a previous episode, we we mentioned some of the tips from taken from that resource about the different games that you can play. As you said, it’s in several languages and the intention is to create an all 24 languages of the European Union, or is that maybe an ambition that might not get realised?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Well, I’m always optimistic. I mean, if we find someone who can translate it, I mean, it’s as you know, it always depends on how much you can find financial support or not or if someone wants to do it for free. Well, the intention is really to to reach the parents in their language, possibly, if that’s it’s possible, of course, would be great. But on the other hand, we must also say, well, multilingual parents are often multilingual, so they might have no problem also to access this information in other languages. The guide actually comes also with some downloadable resources. If you scroll down the page so you can even download those for the parents to use it.

Sharon Unsworth: And what can you give a few examples or what kind of resources parents might be able to find there?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes, there are some lists of alphabets, for example, or with animals. It’s rather for the for the youngest ones. But I invite you to have a look at it so you can have an idea or how certain things are named in the household so you can fill it in with your language, languages actually. It’s nice to to use them so they are all for free. So why not?

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And there are videos too, right?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes. We also have videos on our YouTube channel that are more informative videos about language learning in everyday life or how to choose a family language strategy. We debunk some myths and how to keep children motivated and also how to introduce your language. Because sometimes parents introduce their home language a little bit later because they miss the moment at the beginning and it’s never too late to introduce it later on as well.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, that’s great. That topic of when to introduce the home language, if you maybe didn’t do it from the start, I think that’s something that there’s not really very many resources available for. Right. So it’s really great that you’ve got that. And also the keeping children motivated as well, I know is a challenge for many parents. Okay. So there’s the booklet and there’s videos and I think you said there was also a Spotify playlist, something like that?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes. We also have a Spotify playlist for the different languages and we also have included some dialects and it’s ongoing, growing and for the different year groups. So that’s a nice resource for parents who are looking for other people who talk the language, so audio material, that is very often what we miss or what we don’t have if we are maybe the only ones speaking that language with our children.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And so that’s music or audiobooks or what’s actually on the list on the playlist?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: So there are songs. So music, yes, audiobooks, shows in that language. For example, there are TV shows that also have a Spotify account.

Sharon Unsworth: Ah, okay.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: And so you can listen to these shows for children in different age groups talking about the topic, also about topics that are school related. So that is a very nice resource also to foster the vocabulary in context or let’s say on subjects that we usually don’t talk about in the family.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, that’s excellent. So I know, you know, I’m in a very privileged position because my kids have English is their heritage language. And so we can find maaany resources, too many resources for them to foster their home language. But it’s great that you’ve put that together because I’m sure many people are going to really love access to those kinds of resources, basically because it can be really hard and time consuming to find them as a parent. Now, of course, PEaCH Project isn’t the only thing that you’re involved in. You’ve got a very active YouTube channel. You have your multilingual toolbox.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Can you tell us a bit about the about the YouTube channel? Because that’s just freely available, right?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Like, yes, I have my own YouTube channel. It’s Ute’s International Lounge where I share all kind of videos for raising children with multiple languages and also staying multilingual across the lifespan. And I started one with Ana Elisa Miranda, with whom I co-authored The Toolbox for Multilingual Families, and Yoshito Darmon-Shimamori, who is also an author of a book where he helps parents to raise multiliterate children. And this other YouTube channel is called Activities for Multilingual Families. And there we share actually what we talk about in our books, that’s to say, how to make using our language, would it be for understanding and speaking or reading or writing, for our children more fun and entertaining. Not only for the children, I must say, because we have fun doing these videos. And I think it’s also important to have parents who do this or who are looking for these resources, have fun looking for the resources, because speaking or transmitting our languages should be not a burden, but something that we enjoy and that we value and that we are proud of.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Can you give us an example of one of the fun activities that you talk about?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes, so well, we have one on tongue twisters. That’s one of the videos. And we have recently published one on treasure hunts.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: So having treasure hunts. Yes. With children that are even preliterate and up to teenagers, how to make this happen and how to engage them in using their language or languages in a way that is not too much focusing on language, but more in the activity. This is actually what we found. And I also found in my my private use of many languages and raising my children with multiple languages much more effective in motivating our children if they are focusing on the activities or on the game or whatever it is instead of the language. So it’s a bit distracting maybe, but it’s it’s a nice way also for us.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. No, it sounds great. Me and my sister used to do treasure hunts as kids. We used to set them up for each other with, like, clues that went from one place to the other. It was our favorite thing to do. And actually thinking about that, I don’t think I’ve ever really done that with my kids. So you’ve already given me a good idea of something that I can do that I know they’re really going to love. You mentioned teenagers then, and you’ve got, as you said at the start, you’ve got your own teenagers. And I know for many parents with older children, teenagers can be a challenge. I understand my, I’ve got a tweenager and I can already see some things might be challenging. What would be a golden tip for parents of teenagers?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: I think at some point we with the parenting of children, we shift as well, right? We realise this when they want to do their things, they choose the activities and they choose the languages that they prefer. So at that point, I must say I become the spectator. I’m observing my children and I just support them with whatever they want to do and whatever language they want to speak or whatever resource they want to use. So that is, in my opinion, what works best with teenagers. I don’t find it a challenging period. I find it even more exciting and interesting to see what they do with the skills and the tools that they have with what we have done in the years previous to their teenage years.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: And they all react in different ways. I have three children and they all react in a different way to the languages they are exposed to. So I have one who doesn’t like to read and she likes to listen to audiobooks. That’s perfect, that’s fine. Or she has a certain kind of literature that she prefers, and the others read a lot. And my son likes to learn many languages. So he’s he’s learned a bit of Chinese in the past years and at the moment also Japanese. So he’s very keen to learn more. And my other daughter is is very interested now in Italian and Spanish. So whatever I think we planned at some point at the beginning. At some point we have to let it go and see how the flowers or plants are growing. That needs to be okay. I’m just happy to see that they are all doing their own thing with the skills and the languages and the other skills that they have acquired.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So go with the flow of it really, right?

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Yes. I don’t think that we can really direct them in a direction that they don’t want to go. So that is where we all I mean, also we adults, we are much more resistant. So I wouldn’t just do something because someone tells me and that’s my right and it’s also the right of my child. But on the other hand, if then my children choose a language that is not mine, I don’t have to take it personally and I’m not. So.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, good. That’s I think that’s a great way to end some positive and a relaxed note. Thanks Ute for sharing all your insights as a parent and a professional and telling us about the many resources that you’ve been involved in, creating. We’ll put links to all of those in the shownotes so anybody can access them. And I’m sure, as you said, the PEaCH Project is a project, a European project. But I have no doubt that many of the resources and tips that you’ve got there will be relevant for parents around the world.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Absolutely. Yes. Yes. And we have also the 200 PEaCH ambassadors that are around the world, so.

Sharon Unsworth: Great. Okay. So thanks again.

Ute Limacher-Riebold: Thank you very much for having me.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s it for this episode of Kletsheads, where we heard all about different multimedia resources you can use. Both to support a child’s bilingual language development and to find out more about bilingual children in general yourself. We also heard about research from Singapore, which showed that what seems to matter most is using multiple different resources rather than spending as much time as possible engaging with those resources. Of course, it’s not always easy to translate the research findings from one context to another, but we know from other work on this topic that a rich language environment is beneficial for children’s development. We’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode when we talk to a Belgian researcher Orhan Agirdag about bilingualism and academic achievement and I share another Kletsheads Quick and Easy. Until then.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at kletsheadspodcast.org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!

This transcript was generated using amberscript.com and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.

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