On learning to read in two languages

I have a new post up on the Foreigners blog for the BBC Russian Service. All about the Star learning to read. Or not. Although I can see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel now. Still, it’s a slog.

Here’s the original:

My son got a certificate from his (British) school last week for good work in learning the (English) alphabet. Actually, it wasn’t for good work as such, it was for good effort, which is clearly not the same thing. The truth of the matter is that my four and a half year old son is finding the basics of reading and writing heavy going.


I blame the parents. Specifically I blame our desire for him to be nearly equally bilingual in Russian and English every step of the way. This means the poor boy is learning his Russian letters at the same time as all the English ones.


First problem. The Russian and English alphabets are, of course, different, so that means that for more or less the same sound, my son often has two learn two symbols. ‘f’ for instance and ‘ф’. But in my opinion it’s made harder when the alphabets are not different enough.  The Russian ‘с’ for example looks like a letter in the English alphabet, but has a totally different sound. Worse still are the near misses such as the English capital letter ‘N’, which looks confusingly like the Russian ‘И’, but again, bears no relation to the sound. Even the ones which are, at first glance, the same, such as ‘a/а’ are misleading. An English ‘a’ sound is often not much like a Russian one.


Second problem. I understand that the drive towards basic literacy begins more at six or seven in Russia. In the UK most of my son’s peers have been at it for at least a year already, and more if they happen to have been born in a month early on in the academic year like October. It isn’t compulsory (yet) for children to start their formal learning at three, but the UK provides fifteen hours of free nursery a week from that age specifically to try to make sure that kids get a head start on this kind of thing, so it is popular.


We did not send our son to these classes. They clashed with his Russian playgroup. No, he was not allowed to only go three mornings rather than the five mornings he was offered. That would have messed up the school’s attendance statistics. We had to make a choice about whether to tip the balance of English/Russian input almost completely over to English or try to maintain a more Russian environment for a little while longer. We chose the Russian.


Of course I could, I suppose, have started with the alphabet at home but the third problem is that my son is a summer baby, and it simply did not occur to me he needed to at three years old, the age he was until shortly before he started British school. Plus, see above about the English/ Russian balance. I was rather hoping that we could leave most of the formal English language instruction to the formal British education system. Do you think I am making guilty excuses here? Maybe. Let’s move on.


Fourth problem. This year, my son does not go in for half days, but for the full British school day of 8.45 to 3pm. Five days a week. I understand that most Russian children finish at 1pm. This seems much more civilised, albeit difficult if you have two parents who work (what happens then, by the way?). So let’s say we get home at half four (we often stop off in the park on the way home), and then cooking and eating takes until half five. My son’s bedtime is seven. That doesn’t leave very much time for both the Russian and English homework he has, and frankly, it’s not just the lack of time. After six hours in school I feel my son deserves a break, although to be fair they spend a lot of time just playing at the school. But basically, my son spent the first term exhausted, and this was not helped by the fact that he was attending Russian school on a Saturday too. Now that we have added two after school activities (judo and music classes in Russian in case you are interested), that squeezes us even more. When, I wonder, are we supposed to flash the flash cards and read the books they keep sending home? I mostly do the English side of things over breakfast. Babushka fits in the Russian work before dinner. On Sundays we have a rest and my son finally gets to watch some TV.


Fifth problem. It took me a while to work out that my son was quite so far behind with his English letters because experiencing school in two cultures has allowed me to once again notice the difference between the Russian and British characters. My son’s Russian teacher forthrightly pointed out his backwardness in colouring in neatly in the first lesson he ever had with her. It took us two weeks of battling with his lack of interest in anything involving manual dexterity, but he now seems to be on track there. In fact, his teacher told me how pleased she was with his improvement only last week.


The British teachers have been more… circumspect. In fact, I only found out by accident that he was in the bottom group for reading/ letter learning. What they mainly seemed concerned about when he started was his initial reluctance to put his hand up before answering a question. Don’t get me wrong – there has been plenty of encouragement to the homework, to read, to play with the letter cards they sent home, but no particular sense of urgency. A bit of urgency and a little bit less politeness would have been helpful, or maybe I have just been living with a Russian man for too long.


Maybe they don’t feel any, of course. But I do. Still, past experience of the bilingual journey is that if you grit your teeth, hang in there, and keep at it, it all works out in the end. I do hope it’s true here too.



Guest Post: On the perils of teatime.

Tallulah from Bilingual Babes and I are swapping guest posts. Which I think is excellent as not only do I get a fresh and funny take on one of my favourite topics, culture shock, but I also get to introduce everybody reading this to someone who finds the bicultural aspect of bilingualism as fascinating as I do.

So without further ado:

Solnushka suggested I write about culture shock, which I haven’t really done before, so I was quite keen!

Although France is just next door to the UK, it’s surprising how many differences there are. The music, the food, the films, so many little differences that add up to quite a bit of culture shock! For example, in one of the kids’ French books, there is a general knowledge question aimed at children of around 6 years old: ‘When do you eat the cheese course?’ and I had no idea, not being too familiar with ‘the cheese course’! Apparently it’s usually between the main meal and desert, thank you Google 🙂

A funny gaffe that I made quite a lot when the kids first started going to French school was serving dinner during playdates. I always love it when my kids come home from a playdate already having had dinner and ready for the bath! So I was quite surprised to find that Schmoo was coming back from playdates, not only not having been served dinner, but having been given a large dose of cake instead, so that she no longer wanted to eat any dinner! I also didn’t understand why the French mums were looking at me strangely when I proudly informed them that their child had already had dinner when they came to collect them from a playdate at our house!

After a few months of this, the penny finally dropped. Like most other English kids, mine have a small snack when I collect them from school, maybe a piece of fruit or a biscuit, which they usually eat in the car on the way home. This way, they are ready for dinner around 5.30pm, which gives me time to get them in the bath for 6pm and in bed by 7pm. But the French take their food a bit more seriously! The after-school snack, known as a goûter, is a very big deal! Out come the hot chocolate and the madeleines, out come the pain au chocolats and the brioches, and it’s a sit-down affair with a good half hour dedicated to it! They can do this because dinner is not served until around 8pm, usually after the bath. So now I serve a proper goûter on playdates with French kids and am no longer ‘the weird English mum’… or maybe I am, but at least I get the meals right!

I must say, I could get very into the goûter myself, and certainly into this Guest Posting business. Consider this an open invitation for anyone interested in writing something about culture shock to contact me at s underscore solnushka dot yahoo dot co dot uk.

On activating the passive.

So the BBC Russian Service has put up another blog post of mine, and so here it is in all it’s untranslated glory.

The really difficult thing about bringing up bilingual children is getting them to speak the minority language, the language which they do not hear around them on the street, in shops, at school, round their friends’ houses, every day. In our case, we live in the UK and that minority language is Russian.

There are a number of reasons for this difficulty. Older children might want to fit in with their monolingual peers, for example. But I think one of the main problems is getting the kids to see that learning two languages is not just a rather pointless bit of busywork. After all, Mama and Papa speak both languages. Why bother to make the effort to remember how to say it in Russian when you can speak to them in English and be understood, the language that is also useful outside the home if you want to get random people to tell you interesting stuff like what their dog’s name is?

The problem is compounded because bilinguals, and children in particular, often fix on just one language to use with the people they interact with regularly. If they have decided that Papa is someone they speak to in English it can be very hard, and stressful for the child, to shake that person-language bond. No matter how much Papa sulks about it.

This is why I am very pleased, smug even, that at four years old my son seems as happy to chatter away in Russian as in English. It was not a forgone conclusion, particularly as I am the main caregiver, and that means my children get an extra dose of English from me, in addition to the hours of English language TV they watch… sorry, the amount of English they unavoidably hear as we go about our everyday business.

So how did we do it? I offer to the world at large some tips on how to ensure that your child will continually pester his parents for a new toy car all afternoon in both languages.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, it helps to have a babushka who does not speak any English whatsoever, and who comes to stay for extended periods of time. If you are a small boy, there is nothing like needing to ask for a banana in Russian in order to get what you want to get you to actually do it. It also has the added bonus that a lot more Russian gets spoken in the home too when she is staying because my innate laziness wars with the rudeness of speaking a language babushka doesn’t understand in front of her and frequently loses. This has also been excellent for my own Russian language skills.

The danger there, though, is that speaking Russian becomes a sort of weird family quirk, with no relevance to the real world outside the home. Also, there’s a limit to the range of contexts you might want to boss your babushka about in, and therefore a limit to the range of structures and vocabulary you get to use. This is why it is also helpful that, living in London as we do, there are actually quite a lot of other Russian people about, and many of them have kids the same age as my son. We are lucky enough, in fact, to have found a playgroup with a thriving Russian-speaking community attached, a community, in fact, where Russian is the language of choice, rather than a language which people can speak if they want to. So effective was having my son make contacts here, that even when, after babushka had gone home for the summer, he was refusing to speak Russian at home beyond very basic sentences and a whole lot of words for food causing us much consternation and panic, I was astonished and relieved to hear him having quite sophisticated conversations with other children and adults. There are other benefits too, of course. The borsht is excellent. Oh, and the people are very nice too.

Now this was all very well, but my husband was still left with the agonising situation that his eldest son wouldn’t speak his language with him. At this point, can I recommend having another baby, and making it a summer birth? Because it became the perfect opportunity to pack my husband and son off to Moscow for a month without me, and I am pleased to report that after a month of total immersion into Russian life, with no English language distractions aside from a nightly phone call, my son had shifted the person-language bond with his Papa from English to Russian, much to everyone’s relief. A month of exclusive Russian, getting to speak Russian in the street, in restaurants, in shops, at the theatre, the zoo, the circus, in playgrounds, a variety of datchas and his Papa’s friends’ houses, every day with every person he met also improved his fluency and range out of all recognition too.

So much so that this year my family has decided to do it all over again. Yes, ladies, I now have an unassailable excuse to insist on at least a couple of child-free weeks every year. Except not this time, as we decided that my daughter probably wouldn’t get quite the benefit from the situation at the grand old age of one so she is staying behind with me and learning to moo, say baa and crow like a cockerel in two languages.

Still, there’s always next year.

On blogging for the BBC

You are proud to announce that you are now blogging in Russian (*cough* in translation *cough*)  for the BBC World Service. 

Writing something you knew would be translated was an odd experience. Especially translated into Russian. You have read a fair number of Russian-to-English texts in your time and many of them have been quite odd. Translated Russian can be brutally choppy, something you suspect the fact that Russians do commas all wrong* doesn’t help with although it’s probably the fault of having both more flexible word order in sentences and some really dauntingly information-packed adjectival phrases. In addition, any attempt to render slang across the language barrier is invariably a horrible horrible mistake.

As a result you have decided that the two languages are fundamentally incompatible.

So you decided to try to make life easier for your translator by eschewing things like the affected ‘you’ and the hyperbole, the overuse of adverbs, and the ungrammatical subordinate clauses made to do the work of a full sentence that you use on this blog. A bit. Still, you are deeply grateful to the person who translated this, who clearly had the bigger job of the two of you.

This is what you wrote:

I first went to Russia in 1996 intending to stay for six months and have never entirely left. Well, that’s not literally true. Right now I live in the UK, but in a corner of London that will be forever Slavic because my husband is Russian and my two children are, therefore, half Russian.

Why Russia? No reason, particularly, except that I wanted to live abroad for a while after university and had a choice between Russia and India.

I really hate hot weather.

I come from a small town about thirty miles outside of London. The most interesting thing about it is that Lewis Hamilton, the formula one driver is from there. It’s pleasant but not terribly exciting and Moscow was a bit of a shock, made more so by the fact that I didn’t speak a word of Russian before I arrived. I learned to read the alphabet while negotiating my way round the Metro stations.

Moscow, you see, is big. There are big buildings, some tall, some just heavily monolithic. The doors are built for giants. The roads have seventeen million lanes (some of them). Parks are like walks in the country, and as you fly into the airport, you look down on miles and miles and miles and miles of forest. It is very disconcerting to realise that Moscow has been built in one rather large clearing.

In fact what with coming from a small island nation, I never have really managed to comprehend properly how big Russia itself is. You have to show three maps just to get the weather forecast done and even then the distances involved are mind-boggling.

In addition, the history is impressively, and sometimes oppressively, huge, and it was a history that Russia was still very much living through when I arrived almost completely (you will have gathered) unprepared. I may be a historian by training, but I specialised in 18th Century France and Venice.

I survived and refused to leave because I enjoyed finding out everything I didn’t know before I came and because I adore Russian people (and snow). They are warm, helpful, funny, intelligent, determined and practical. Which is why, of course, I married one of them (and miss snow in winter).

In the fullness of time we had children. And at this point, multicultural families often hit problems, not least of which is whose language do you teach them? Or, how do you make sure that they learn both languages? If you don’t want them to, why not? If you do, how well do you want them to speak?

Our decision, when our son was born in 2008 and reaffirmed when my daughter joined us this year, was that we wanted them to be as balanced bilingual speakers as possible, which means that we wanted them to speak (and read, and write) both English and Russian equally well. This presents some challenges again, especially as we live outside of Russia. I do a lot of the childcare and my Russian is brutal and largely ungrammatical (but with a really good vocabulary relating to potty training, weaning and childhood illnesses).

So I will be writing about how my husband and I, with a lot of help from their Russian babushka, are trying to bring those children up bilingually and with a sound bi-cultural understanding of both Britain and Russia as well.

At the moment this seems to involve me watching a lot of Soviet-era cartoons and having my Russian grammar and vocabulary corrected by a three year old.

*Or is it the English speakers?

Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism October 2011.

It’s the end of October and that means it must be time for the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism. Once again we have a set of thoughtful, funny, inspiring and reassuring articles on raising children bi or multi lingually and culturally, and I am proud to be able to host it.

Sarah at Bringing up Baby Bilingual, has interviewed a non-native speaker of English about his decision to raise his child as an English speaker.

Tatjana of Pebblemeddle shares her journey towards her decision to raise her child bilingually with us, a journey she is surprised she made.

Also on the topic of language and identity, Jiminy writes about the complex and sometimes difficult relationship between her view of Romanian and her view of herself as a Romainian  at Jiminy’s Blog. She also tells us about the changing nature of her children’s bilingualism as circumstances have given them a different mix of language models.

On Thirty Fourth Psalm, Timnah’s take on this issue explores why learning a language also needs sensitivity to cultural flexibility and whether we should take context into account more.

And Melissa of Where going havo? has written about how bilingual children interact with each other. What happens when one child is deep in language rebellion… but another isn’t?

A different identity question is asked by Mrs B of Cranky Monkeys in London. She wants to know what language your kids call you Mummy in, and does it bother you?

Multilingual Mama, Coco, writes about some of the funny phrasing that her daughter produces whilst language mixing, and has translated and annotated the well-known story of Olivia the pig for our amusement.

On a related note, Busy as a Bee in Paris’s Maria also sees the positive side to language mixing and makes some suggestions as to how to handle it.

Continuing the hints and tips, Rosalind has some great ideas for making language learning fun in order to support minority languages in Tales of Windmill Fields.

And Smashedpea provides a useful summary of dos and don’t in a no frills guide to raising bilingual children over at Intrepidly Bilingual.

Finally, to remind us all of why it’s worthwhile, Italo Bimbi’s Giovanna has included a video interview with Dr. Amy Weinberg, University of Maryland all about the intellectual benefits of bilingualism.

So there you have it. If you would like to know more about the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, or sign up to hold it yourself one month, then visit the carnival page hosted on Bilingue Per Gioco.

On submissions for a bilingual blogging carnival.

I am hosting the October edition of the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism. You can see some of the previous carnivals and more about them in general here.

If you would like to take part, please send me your posts on bi/multilingualism, bi/ multiculturalism, language learning or teaching, or any other topic inspired by bringing up children bi or multilingually by Friday 28th October . I hope to get the carnival up and about over that weekend. My email is s (underscore) solnushka (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk

Please include the URL for your post,  your name and your blog’s name.

I’m really looking forward to hosting my second Bilingual Blogging Carnival. I always learn something new and useful when we do this and I am always inspired and reassured by other people’s stories and efforts.

Any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me at s (underscore) solnushka (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk