Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Monkey Bench Switch

This post is for you, Mom.

The other night, as I lay restless in bed, I had this vision of moving the 'the monk's bench' into Kaya's room from our living room. The monk's bench, for those of you who didn't grow up with my me and my sister, is a cherished antique piece of furniture that, as my mom always explained to us, the monks used to use as one of their few pieces of furniture. In one form, it is a table, with a storage bench underneath the top. In its other form, it is a bench, with arms. We grew up with this beautiful piece of dark walnut next to our front door, where we would sit and put our shoes on before leaving the house. We'd have all sorts of odds and ends stored in the bench, though I mostly remember it being full of yellow plastic bags and metal lunch boxes.

When my mom passed away, my sister was supposed to get the monk's bench...but I told her how excited I was about the idea of having it at our house, and she was generous enough to trade us for the 'treasure chest' (another story for another day). When we brought the monk's bench home, however, we realized that it didn't fit next to our front door nearly as well as I'd hoped...although we've had it there for the past many months, not knowing exactly where else to put it. Hence, my random thought process as I was lying sleepless in bed.

So, the following morning, I awoke early, eager to start the moving process. Forcing myself to wait until I had enough time to do it right (mom would be SO proud!), I was finally able to dive in once Kaya was at her grandparents' in the afternoon. I moved a bookshelf out, and another one over, and the monk's bench into her room next to her crib. Eager about my inspiration, I was disappointed when it didn't look, or rather feel, quite right. It felt too heavy and foreboding in her sweet little room full of bunnies and bears and babies. But then I saw it...the monkey quilt that I made her, draped over the end of her crib. I grabbed it and draped it over the bench, quickly realizing the irony:

The monk's bench.
The monkey bench.
The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Mom would LOVE it. She would stay up sleepless just beaming about the whole situation, so proud of me for having the thought, for acting on my inspiration, and for wanting to have her furniture in the first place. She would go on and on about how wonderful the whole thing is, and about how she can't wait to see it. She might even tell me that she could come over this weekend, if we were going to be around, knowing full well that she'd be too sick to get out of bed to even be able to call. But she'd still be beaming with pride from that bed, happy to know that her monk's bench was being used by her granddaughter and beloved son-in-law to read and connect and learn all sorts of fun things in life...

At this point, I could probably end this blog post, and you might not even notice that I didn't mention anything about Kaya's language--nothing like a few smiles or tears to distract an audience. However, my point in starting this post was to share a little anecdote about what happened tonight leading up to Geoff and Kaya's story time on the bench.

I was lying on our bed after having just played with Kaya and Geoff. Geoff left to get Kaya some milk since she'd just made her official request of the evening. Daddy is the milk-getter in our family...Mama, if she's home, is the Milch-giver. Geoff had been gone for about a minute, when Kaya took my hand to slide off the bed, stomach down, feet-first. She quickly started walking towards the door, clearly demanding her German cocktail, over and over and over. As she got about half-way through the hallway, within earshot of Geoff and clearly away from me, she switched her request to English, with no pause whatsoever. Though we've seen similar language switches with her in the past, I still feel shocked when I think about her saying, "Milch, Milch, Milch, Milch, Milch, milk, milk, milk, milk, milk...".

These days, she continues to be very selective with us, very rarely mixing her languages unless she only knows the terms in one particular language. She still prefers to use the term "A-a" and "lu-lu" over "poop" and "pee", but wouldn't you? She struggles to make the quick switch with "an" and "aus" (on/off), but she will make it if we're both there. Tonight, with easy access to the light switches on her new monkey bench, she was having fun playing with the words, as well as "dark" and her newest word, "dunkel". Couldn't get her to say it's opposite, "hell"...though maybe that's for the best, as far as the public is concerned. She's already got a few obscenities under her belt: her 'frog' sounds like a very clear "Fok", and her 'sit' is marked by a very strong "sh" at its front. Tonight, as she was playing with Tante Jules (her English speaking aunt her liked the term "Tante"), Kaya told me "Hilfe" as soon as I walked in the door. Apparently, she had just asked Julie for help buckling the "Henna's" life jacket.

If I were to let myself, I could come up with all sorts of fun examples of how Kaya impresses us with her bilingualism...but it's nearing midnight, and I meant to be in bed an hour ago...but now, maybe I'll be able to sleep instead of dreaming up fancy furniture configurations with our futon.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Last weekend, despite the heavy rain predictions, or actually because of them, we got outta dodge and headed for drier country in Central Oregon. Now that I'm getting older and have proven to myself that I can tough it out in the elements, I feel OK, and even somewhat reluctanctly excited, about the fact that we have become 'car campers'. Not exactly true to form--we still loathe state-park-type campgrounds with 150 driveways, affording no privacy, much less any remote feeling of getting away into the wilds. But slowly, we're carving out our latest outdoor recreation niche since backpacking with a toddler just isn't going to cut least until the rainy season subsides.

Last week, we had this amazing opportunity fall into our lap: our neighbor offered us first dibs on her VW Eurovan. (!!!!!!!) It's a 'weekender', so there's a pop-up top AND a pop-up table. Complete with a small cooler and curtains, as well as a queen-size fold-out bed down below, it makes for the perfect little family camper. We are so excited to have a way to get out into the elements without having to stay in them if we don't want to. As much as I wish I were up for that 'bad-ass' lifestyle of living tentless under the stars for weeks on end as I was in 1999, I recognize that I'm currently in a phase of life where I just need things to be easy. And I'm more and more okay with that as the months go by.

So, Saturday night, as it had just begun to rain, I was sitting around our roaring fire, waiting for Geoff to put the finishing touches on his 'buffalo delight': a shepherd's pie type dish, complete with chopped potatoes, carrots, onions and ground buffalo, wrapped in foil and tossed in the coals of the fire. Kaya had been put to sleep in her little tent-bed inside the van, and we were eager to eat. She must have sensed that desire, however, and started to cry. As we sometimes do, we let her fuss for a bit, hoping, as she often does, that she'd work it out and fall asleep on her own. This time, however, it wasn't happening. She began to scream, clearly desiring some buffalo-yum as well. Geoff, being closer to the van, went to soothe her. He was speaking so softly to her that I couldn't hear what he was saying...Kaya, on the other hand, who hasn't quite mastered her "inside voice" (though we were outside...!), had loud, yet oh-so-sweet responses that rang crisply through the darkness.

As I sat there watching the flames dance, I listened intently to their exchange. As soon as Geoff started speaking to Kaya, her screams subsided, and were replaced with a long, yearning, "Yeeeaaah." He would speak again, for about 15 seconds, and she would, once again, reply with a "yeeaah," each time in a different tone. Early in his interactions with her, her "yeah"s sounded sad and hopeless, more long and drawn-out. But as the story-telling session continued (as I guessed he was doing), her "yeah"s grew more and more excited and shorter in length--kind of like the variances I just discovered in Chinese, actually. I wondered to myself, as I sat there in my crazy-creek, what was he saying to her to cause her to respond with such excitement. I knew he had to be telling her a story of sorts, as she has come to love, but about what I couldn't be sure. But every 15-30 seconds, without fail, her sweet little "yeah" would come floating across the night to flash a smile across my face. There she was, sad as can be, crying out for help, when all of a sudden, her Daddy (as she has come to call him) comes to the rescue with a story full of all sorts of characters that she is oh-so-happy to encounter. Bears and dogs and birds on the beach, as well as the balls and the sticks and the trees they were climbing. Their adventures of digging in the sand, running along the trails, pushing their babies in their strollers, and sitting by their campfire in the night. He didn't like the story, he reported to me once she fell asleep--it lacked a plot. But clearly, plot isn't what she's after--she's plenty happy to just hear about all sorts of things in life that bring her joy, that take her to the parts of her mind that conjure up feelings of satisfaction and understanding and recognition. And that's what life is all about, right? Being satisfied and understanding our surroundings and recognizing what's important? That's why I go to the desert...that's why getting out is so important to me because it brings me to that place in my mind where I can remember to go back to the basics, to be a kid again, and dream and smile and watch the flames dance.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Windows of Opportunity

Recently, I started reading a book called Multilingual Children. When I saw it at the library, I was hesitant to grab it off the shelf, thinking that it wouldn't apply to our situation. However, in reading parts of this book, I have this renewed excitement at starting Kaya on a 3rd language in Kindergarten.

I know, I's a bit early to be thinking about that, since she's not even two. But it's good to have goals and dreams, right? Lately, I'd been feeling so excited about the possibility of an Environmental School in our area that I'd put our ideas of early trilingualism aside. But in reading this chapter on Windows of Opportunity, I remembered how excited I get at the idea of her being trilingual by 8.

Three and a Half Windows

According to the author, there are 3 Windows of Opportunity for language learning. The first one is between birth to 9 months of age. During that time, they are simply sponges, and they more input they can get in whatever languages are available to them, the better, as they are forming neural pathways faster then than at any other time in their lives.

There is another window between the 1st and the 2nd, which falls between 9 months and 2 years...which is really only a window for children who have an aptitude for language. She says that for those children, any exposure to any languages that they get in this time can severely affect how easily they are able to pick up the languages later. When I read this, I got very excited about the idea of "using" the next 3 months to foster communication between my step mom (Ecuadorian, native Spanish speaker) and Kaya. I recognize that I could speak to her in Spanish, too, but I don't want to confuse her with adding another language that I speak to her. She has been so stellar at selecting which language to use with me and which to use with everyone else, that I don't want to confuse her with a 3rd from me. Apparently, introducing a third from someone else shouldn't be a problem, but rather a possible benefit for later (especially if we go with a Spanish immersion program in the neighborhood!).

The 2nd Window of Opportunity is between age 4 and 6. From what people say, teachers especially, there is a general stagnation in language between 2 and 4, where they aren't making nearly the progress that they were before, and will later. So, during this 2 year period is an optimal time to introduce a language (first, second, or third). The more I consider the Spanish idea, the more excited I get about it. Not only would it be wonderful for Kaya to be able to speak with Rosa (her grandma) in her native language, but it would be really nice for Geoff to be able to learn along with her. He was excited for us to raise her bilingually in Spanish until I pulled the rug out and told him I didn't have it in me to foster a relationship with her in Spanish. If we introduce her to Spanish in an immersion program in Kindergarten (Beech Elementary), maybe that could make up for that minor disappointment.

Apparently there is another lag between 6 and 8, but then at 8 starts the 3rd Window of Language Learning Opportunity. From what I read, there is no neurological difference between how an 8 year old's brain learns language, and how an adult's does. The differences lie in everything else that affects language learning success: windows of opportunity; aptitude; motivation; strategy; consistency; opportunity and support; linguistic relationship between the 1st and 2nd languages; siblings; gender; and hand use. I was pretty shocked to hear that there is no neurological difference there. But in reality, all those other things are huge differences between adults and children, especially when taking strategy into account.


So, in addition to being completely inspired about Kaya becoming an early trilingual, I decided that I REALLY want to be a polyglot. I love knowing 3 languages, but there's something so fascinating to me about that change from 'trilingual' to 'polyglot'. So, for a few days, the debate was between Italian and Chinese. Actually, it's been a debate for at least a year or two, as I've been thinking about and wanting to learn another language for a LONG time. But every time I checked in with myself about 'why', it didn't seem like "because I want to" was enough of a reason.

But then, Geoff and I were standing in the backyard the other day, and I was feeling completely overwhelmed at the state of our surroundings. We'd done all this beautiful planting in the spring after removing an entire ground-covering of 'Lords and Ladies (a poisonous non-native).

We'd also built and planted a beautiful eco-roof on our shed, which is now a weed-roof. He took my head to his shoulder, wrapped his arm around me, and said,
"It's the journey that counts."

So I started learning Chinese on Monday, and I LOVE it. On Sunday, when I hopped on to LiveMocha, a free language learning site on the web, I felt pretty overwhelmed at the idea of learning Chinese. I did ok on the first two activities, but by the 3rd, when they were already wanting me to produce language after only minimal exposure to each word, I gave up...partly on the program, partly on the language. But on Monday, once I decided that Chinese makes a whole lot more sense for me to learn than Italian, I started looking for a Chinese teacher on Craigslist. In the process of searching, I found this GREAT link to an online business college that offers the opportunity to purchase increments of time on the online Rosetta Stone website. For years, my mom tried to get me to try Rosetta Stone. She'd heard SO much advertising that she thought, for sure, it must be good. I poo-pooed the idea for years, thinking that it must be a gimmick...there's no REAL good language learning software out there.

But I was wrong.
Rosetta Stone gets my endorsement as a language teacher.

Admittedly, I had my doubts on Wednesday evening as I was on my 3rd day of Chinese study. I'd hit this point where I had absolutely NO idea what they were trying to teach me, or rather, what I was supposed to be learning. I began to wonder whether Rosetta Stone was up to the challenge of teaching a language that doesn't share the Roman alphabet.

But last night, my worries were put to rest as things started clicking into place and I can listen to these Chinese sentences being spoken and identify the picture they are describing. I can figure out which characters belong where, and even figure out what many of them mean, just by looking at these pictures and listening to the narrator describe them (Rosetta Stone uses NO English, or native language...the target language is taught through repetitive identification and well-placed pictures.

So, I'm on Day 5 and eager as a beaver to quit writing and start studying. Geoff is away for a bit, and I'm excited to have the place to myself to dive in and 'play' as long as I want.

Oh, and that link, should you also want to start learning (or pick up again) another language:

Basically, you can purchase 3, 6, 9, or 12 months of online access to Rosetta Stone, Version 3, for a fraction of the cost that you'd pay to purchase the program. I paid $50, for example, for 3 months. So far, after 4 days and about 4 hours, I've made it 3/4 through Unit 1, and there are 4 Units per level...on Rosetta Stone website, each level costs $249 (there are 3-5, depending upon the language). So, if I maintain this rate, I will make it through Level 1 in 3-4 weeks? Which means, if I stayed on it, I COULD do a Level a Month--SO, I'd be paying only $50 for 3 levels, saving $400 over purchasing the actual program. (ok, so maybe that might be rushing things...but even if I do 2 levels in 3 months, that's still $300 or so...). Clearly, if you're dedicated, this is the WAY to go! It's the older version, so you don't get the online native speaker access...but it's a good savings, and a great way to see if you are going to stick with it...which was my initial reasoning for going this route.

Thanks again for joining me in this journey...not any cute Kaya anecdotes this time, but suffice it to say, she's as cute as EVER, and saying multiple new words a day in both languages. YAY to that!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Code-switching at 20.5 months? Or just differentiating?...

Last night, soon after I walked in the door from tutoring, Geoff told me that Kaya was communicating on a totally different level. "What do you mean," I asked him. And then, as soon as I sat down on the couch next to them, I heard for myself as quickly as he'd delivered his message...

Kaya was sitting in Dada's lap, snuggling into his shoulder with her sippy cup of milk. They were looking through the photo album of our summer camping trips. After a few moments initial shyness, Kaya started crawling and falling all over the couch, giggling between a variety of words in both English and German. The first thing she said that left me speechless was in reference to her banana-eating friends. She came home with 2 monkeys that usually live at her grandparents'...(apparently she was much more 'into' her toys yesterday than they noticed she was last week, so they sent her primate friends home with her). When I asked her about these stuffed playmates, "Was ist das? Ist das ein Affe?" (What is that? Is that a monkey?), she answered, "Affe.....Monkey". That was the first time I'd EVER heard her use both labels in the same was as if she'd been saying the word, 'monkey' for the past day (which she had, according to her grandparents) and wanted to make sure that 'Affe' was, indeed, the same as 'Monkey'. Usually, instead of switching her comment to English with me, she switches it to German, like she did at dinner a bit later in the evening.

The three of us were sitting at the table when I asked her whether she wanted some water. "No. Nein," she said, quickly, with nary a pause between the two words. This time, instead of seemingly wanting to verify the meanings, it seemed very clear to me that she was correcting the language that she chose to use with me. From this single experience at the table, it may not seem very clear that she is code-switching. However, there are a variety of other little stories that illustrate how clearly and consistently she is doing this.

Earlier this week, as I was heading out for a run, I heard Kaya come toddling out of her room towards the fridge, eagerly requesting (demanding?!) "milk, milk," from her Dada. She'd been talking to Geoff for a few minutes before I heard this, so it's clear that she was directing this request to him--I was also nearly out the door and out of her sight. I knew that she uses the word 'milk', as well as the term 'Milch', but didn't know that she knew to differentiate the terms from one another in regards to which one to use with each of us. While she was at her English-speaking grandparents' place last week, she used the term 'help' as opposed to 'Hilfe' in German, as she uses regularly with me. My theory was, that when she's prompted to use one term or another, like when her Gramms asks her if she wants help, then she simply continues to use that word until prompted, in context, to use the term 'Hilfe'. Maybe that IS how her brain was working up until a few days later when I was coming home from that run. Apparently, Kaya had gotten distracted from her initial English milk-request, and started playing with her toys instead. Geoff was rushed that morning, and therefore, didn't respond immediately to her plea (hence the distraction...). As soon as she saw me, however, she was reminded of her lingering desire for dairy, and made that clear to me with a very adamant, "Milch...Milch." It took me a second to process what had just occurred, but once I did, I pointed it out excitedly to Geoff:

Kaya clearly differentiated her language with us for the first time ever!
Or is it simple association?
Or code-switching?

Whatever it is, it's a heck of a lot more advanced than I ever thought she'd be at this age...and a HECK of a lot more excitement than I EVER expected to experience as I returned from my jaunt.

The question was burning such a hole in my mind that I came home yesterday from the library with 4 books on language development. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I dove into the books, looking eagerly for an answer to my question:

Is it possible that Kaya can differentiate languages already?
Would it be considered code-switching?

Code-switching and Triggers

I found at least part of my answer in Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson:
"In bilingual mode, [which is when bilinguals don't use their languages separately from each other, but instead use both languages together], speakers often switch between languages, or 'code-switch.' This seamless switching between languages (here called 'codes') can happen either between sentences or within sentences at permissible points in the grammatical structure..." (p.98)

There is lexical code-switching, that refers to switching single words into the other language, and grammatical code-switching, which is when more of a sentence is switched. Grammatical code-switching happens "in response to an internal or external 'trigger.' A trigger is a word or grammatical element that is represented mentally in both languages, so it facilitates, or 'triggers,' the move from one language to the other." (p.98)

Pearson continues on to say that "all bilingual speakers have the choice to switch or not to switch. It is as if they have a meter that they can set at either one language or the other--or in between. Generally, a child's setting--closer to bilingual or closer to one of the monolingual poles--reflects the way his environment is set. Children under age two appear sensitive to signals from other speakers, although they may not be very skilled at staying in one language..."

These last few sentences felt really promising to me, as if I'd found my answer. However, I'm still not confident that what Kaya is doing would be considered code-switching. It seems that there must be another term that relates to the fact that Kaya is becoming aware that two different languages are being spoken to or around her, and that the words that she knows fit in these different languages in a certain way. It seems that it would be called 'differentiation', but I have yet to find this term or a recognition of the concept in the reading that I've been doing.

To those of you multi-lingual parents out there, raising bilingual or multilingual children, can you speak to this at all? Is there a term for this? Do you remember when your kids started differentiating, or associating one person with one language? Are you willing to share any stories?

Kaya, pointing out (in!) Zoe's "Ohr" (ear)

In addition to the words above (no/nein, milk/Milch, book/Buch), Kaya has a few more words that we've noted over the past week that she consistently differentiates (the German with me and its English counterpart with everyone else):

"hungy"-"Hummer" (hungry/Hunger)

Additional Language Developments

In addition to this whole differentiation/code-switching concept, Kaya's language has been exploding in other ways, too.

--3 days ago, she said her first 4 syllable word: Edamame.

--She now identifies colors when she sees them, specifically "ink" (pink) and "lellow."

--She's been using more two-word phrases in the past few days than we've ever heard her use:
aya's house
hello dog
baby tomato
baby monkey

--And the cutest thing: Even though she's nailed the "k" at the end of many words, like "Cock" (clock!) and "book", she can't seem to figure out how to put the sound at the beginning of words. Same goes for "w/v" in German. So, she says cute things like:
"aya" (Kaya)
"henna" (Kenna)
"ua" (Kahlua)
"iss" (Kiss)
"assah" (Wasser/water)

Excited to be able to put a diaper on a REAL baby!

It's hard for me to express how excited I am about this new stage in Kaya's development--not sure if I've succeeded in sharing this excitement through my writing already, but if not, then I just have to say, "I LOVE THIS!!!!!!" Laying her down on her changing table and hearing her say, "A, Baby, C," while her tongue sticks out past her bottom teeth on her "Cs" and she giggles constantly while recycling a joke from more than week ago...amazing. And beautiful. And amazing.

I just can't seem to get over the fact that she's only been alive for 20 months and she can communicate to get (most) of her needs met; can walk to where she wants to go; and can put my underwear on her head. I thought I had some experience with children, but after spending nearly every day with Kaya for the past many months, it's become clear to me that I had NO idea how amazing it is to watch babies grow up, much less to hear them turn into little people!

Button, Button, Who's got the Button?

Last week Friday morning, after Kaya had been at her grandparents the day before, I discovered that she'd learned a new word while she was away (surely she'd learned more, too!). She and I were upstairs--I was sewing, and she was playing with various toys. Suddenly, I heard her say, clear as day, "Button!" When I looked at her, with half amazement and half curiousity, I saw her pointing at the jar of buttons on my sewing desk. A big smile drew across my face. Buttons. Of course.

So, giving her the jar, I quickly grabbed my phone so I could capture a little video for you to share in my smiles! Initially, I made a video where I spoke both languages to her, so that the non-German speakers could understand it more easily. But, since that's not how I speak to her regularly, and I wanted this video to be realistic, I made another one, figuring I could just provide a script for you:

Me: Was ist das, Kaya? (What is that?)
Kaya: Button....button...!
Me: Ja, Dada sagt 'button'. (Yeah, Dada says, 'button'.)
Me: Wo ist Dada? (Where is Dada?)
Kaya: Arbeit. (work)--This is also a new word as of last week...I started telling her that "Dada ist in der Arbeit", and then started asking her where he which she quickly started answering as she did in this video.
Me: Ja. Hast du Hunger? (Are you hungry?) --In the last video, Kaya randomly said, "Hummer", which is her version of "Hunger"...I wanted to see if I could get her to say it in this video too, but she simply answered my question as opposed to repeating my word, which is pretty normal these days)
Kaya: Ja.......button.
Me: Ja. Dada sagt button, genau. (Dada says button, exactly.) Ok. Bye-bye...sagst du mal 'bye-bye'? (say bye-bye?)
Kaya: Bye-bye.