30 September 2013, by Petrina Kow
I often get asked how I ‘trained’ my kids to speak so well and if I could share any ‘secrets’ on how to get kids to be professional voice-actors. Well the truth is…I didn’t really. I never set out to steer my kids in this particular direction but I guess being scions of a renowned voice-actor, (ahem) they got their foot in the door with the help of some good old fashioned nepotism. My son did his first voice-over for a major car company at the age of 4 when he couldn’t even read and recently starred in a TV commercial for a major cable channel. Of course if you weren’t interested or talented in the area, no amount of nepotism is going to get keep you gainfully employed. In my children’s defense, they do have some talent and but I’d put most of it down to early exposure and lots of inadvertent ‘training’ from their agent/mother. I guess it was only when I started to train professionally as a voice and presentation coach did I realise that there was a lot more I could do to help my kids with their communication skills. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about my journey and alright…my Top Five Tips on how to bring out the best communicators in your kids!
1. Aspire to Better Yourself
I’m a firm believer of monkey see monkey do. And in this case, monkey hears, monkey speaks. You notice kids who speak really well usually come from households where the language ability is generally high and there is no attempt to ‘dumb down’ the speech to accommodate a child. Dump the baby talk, speak to your children well and don’t be afraid to wow them with your verbosity. If you don’t have a ready arsenal of wordy weapons, read more and commit to using a new word everyday. Speak in full sentences, articulate your words clearly and remember that you are your child’s biggest influence when it comes to language acquisition. What about Singlish I hear you ask? I’m not saying to speak in a way that is not natural to you but children have a very innate ability to code-switch and they do know the difference between speaking properly and ‘just relak one corner’. The trouble starts when they can’t tell the difference.
2. Read to your child every night
I won’t go into the tons of research that has gone into how reading to your children from an early age does all kinds of incredibly wonderful things to their brain and their development. But what I will say is this. From my own experience of starting a bedtime reading routine for my kids, I’ve seen how they’ve benefitted tremendously both linguistically and cognitively. Set up a little library at home and rotate your books by trading with friends or borrow from the library. Buy books as gifts and rewards and ask friends to get book vouchers as birthday gifts. Curl up in bed with your kids and share a story with them. There are some amazing children’s picture books that have become favourites in our household from classics like Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak, to fun ones like Dr Seuss, Julia Donaldson and Mo Willems. My son loves Oliver Jeffers maybe because they share the same name but mostly because his books are whimsical, beautiful, simply illustrated and full of adventure. I love going to independent book stores such as Littered with Books, Woods in the Books and Books Actually, but am also proud card-carrying members of Kinokuniya, Times and Popular. We make bi-monthly trips to the library and love listening to audio books in the car.
3. Talk to your kids
I know it seems pretty simple right? But it’s also one of those things that is not easy to do or get right. In this fast paced life that we live in, shoving an iPad in your child’s face to get him to ‘shut-up’ or ‘sit still’ has become a life-saver in many instances but it’s also made us lazy. And we wonder why our children cannot look people in the eye when they speak or hold a simple conversation. It can be about the simplest things like ‘How was school?’ or ‘Who’s your best friend?’ to mind-bending ones like, ‘Why do we have an appendix?’ or ‘Do squirrels remember where they bury their nuts?’ You don’t need to have the answers all the time and I always encourage my kids to educate me if they know better but getting a conversation going is the key. They will find out about how you think and you’d be surprised at how much they already know. Most importantly, have fun, teach them what you know about the world and let them teach you too. My kids must think I’m the dumbest Mom in the world because I always sound so excited to ‘learn’ what they know.
4. Role-Play and encourage participation
We usually do this when we are reading and this is also a gentle and fun way to get them to start reading out loud with you. Find moments in the story where your child can read a certain word out loud or he can read one character and you can read the others. This makes them feel great about being able to ‘read’ and more importantly, they will enjoy reading out loud. When my son was starting to read, our deal was he reads one book and I’ll read 2. Now that my daughter is 10 and reading Salman Rushdie and Neil Gaiman by herself, she still enjoys having me read out loud to her. Now, I’ve dug myself a deep hole with this routine, as these chapters are long, the fonts are small and there are no more pictures. But I ‘cheat’ a little by make her read some of it to ‘test’ her oral ability and that’s when I can spot if she’s articulating her words well and reading it with the right emotions and expressions.
5. Listen to Good Spoken English
If you don’t think you speak English that well or fluently, surround your children in an environment where they get to hear great English being spoken. I’m sorry, but ironic Youtube videos do not make the grade. If you are driving, listen to the BBC or put an audio book on. There are also plenty of audio books available on loan from the library and download free podcasts of interesting programs. Expose them to a wide variety of accents from different countries and languages because I believe this makes them more acutely aware of the sounds that are unique to each language. There is an increasing emphasis in the MOE syllabus on listening and oral presentation skills as they are slowly recognising the deficit on our children’s ability. So if I were to appeal to the inner ‘kiasuparent’ in you, then doing all of these will help in their PSLE scores and improve their grades!
It’s a lot to ask. It’s not easy. But it’s totally worth the effort when your children possess an ability to articulate themselves and have the confidence to speak their opinion. I’ve encountered too many adults who are struggling to even string a coherent sentence together and have real difficulty giving voice to their opinions. Don’t let this be your child’s problem too. Start them young and let them express themselves whenever they can. Honour their opinions, trust your inner voice and let their spirit soar.