Tag Archives: First language

Learning to Say What You Mean: Parenting 101

I’ve been a parent now for a few years. In fact, I’ve been writing about Christine Gross-Loh’s book for nearly as long as I’ve been a parent. Certainly, there’s lots to learn about being a parent and lots that one can learn from being a parent. To date, there’s one salient lesson that stands above the rest: intentional speech.

Whenever I’m speaking to my kid (or any kid, for that matter), I’m always acutely aware of the words that are coming out of my mouth. For one, this little person is still learning the language, so it’s important that I be as precise as possibly can (within reason). In particular, I’m thinking about idioms.

If you’ve travelled to different parts of the country (or different parts of the world), undoubtedly you’ll have come across some phrases that might sound… odd. For instance, I bet you’ve probably let the frog out of your mouth on an occasion or two (Finnish idiom to say the wrong thing). Or when giving directions, has anyone ever told you that the place you’re trying to go is just a cat’s jump away from the museum (German idiom for something that’s not too far away). Or maybe, you and your friend are walking around a new part of town and your friend says to you, “I sense owls in the moss,” (Swedish idiom for finding/seeing something suspicious).

I could go on, but the point here is that cultures from around the world have created phrases to say something (when they really mean something else) and the same thing has happened in our culture. Have you ever done something at the drop of a hat or met someone who was all bark and no bite? Do you find your boss tends to beat around the bush or maybe sometimes add fuel to the fire? Have you ever wished that someone would break their leg?

Think about what these phrases might sound like to someone who’s just learning English. Break a leg. How rude. Or what about saying that to do something is a piece of cake? What the heck is that supposed to mean? Do I need to eat a piece of cake before you tell me how to drive to the airport or will there be cake at the airport?

For toddlers, it’s hard enough to learn how to maneuver one’s body and learn a “foreign language” (learning one’s first language is *kind of* like learning a foreign language, if you think about it). So, why would we compound the difficulty by simultaneously teaching them idioms? There’ll be plenty of time for them to learn how to feed the donkey sponge cake (thanks Portugal!).

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Speaking the Same Language is Harder than it Looks

Have you ever tried speaking with someone who’s native language is not your own? That is, if you’re an English speaker, have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who’s first language is not English? As the world grows closer to itself (in many ways) I suspect that you’re more likely to be forced to converse with people who won’t be communicating in their first language. I bet you might be surprised just how difficult communication can be with someone who’s native language is not your own. It can be quite an experience and I encourage you to try it.

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The corollary that follows from this idea is you being the person who’s not the native speaker. That is, if you’re native language is English, try learning another language and then speaking with someone for which this language is their native language. So, maybe you’re trying to learn French. It can be quite a humbling experience to try and speak to someone who is a French-speaking person. You might recognize some of the frustrations you had when you were the native speaker when looking at the person speaking French with you.

The important point I’m trying to make here is the idea of empathy. This exercise I’ve just outlined is a great way to foster empathy. You’d be able to tangibly experience what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.