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 babies who say ‘Ne!’

The Comet has started to copy the sounds other people make. You noticed this when on a farm visit recently. There were pigs. Many pigs, many piglets, all happily grunting away. The Star was enthralled and the Comet tried to suck the fencing. As you snatched her up and carried her off, you noticed that she was doing an excellent pig impression. Since then she hasn’t looked back and so this week you have been entertaining yourself by seeing how many more animal noises you can get her to do. The horse is both your favourites. ‘Neigh!’ you whiffle, throwing your head up and flicking your mane. ‘Neigh!’ ‘Ne!’ the Comet counters sticking her chin in the air and sneaking you a look to see if she is doing it right. ‘Ne!’*

To be honest you nearly missed this development, because the Comet’s desire to have a good gossip definitely transcends her ability to form the actual words, and as a result you feel as though you have been having conversations with her for quite some time now. In addition to expert turn taking, she has also added perfect intonation, speaking eyes and descriptive hand gestures to her repertoire, and many times a day she will turn to you and ask what is clearly a question, tilting her head enquiringly, shrugging up her shoulders with her palms spread wide, raising her eyebrows and ending on a rising tone. Sometimes, if she feels you are being particularly obtuse, she points, but mostly she just listens intently to your answer, frowns a bit, makes a few comments, often asks another question, and you both can keep this going for quite some time. All in all you do wonder how her version of your little chats is going. You know you are enjoying your half.

You could do without the loud, high-pitched shrieking, mind. But to be fair to the her, she does it when she wants to get across, emphatically, that something is unacceptable. Usually, a lack of food.** It’s not easy getting your point across when you are the youngest in a house full of forceful personalities, but luckily the Comet is able to rise to the challenge.

She is also learning the gentle art of standing up for yourself. Does the Comet stand quietly aside when the Star removes all the toys she is playing with to his side of the room, tries to hug her once too often or steals her last strawberry? Does she heck. No, she marches crossly over to you, hides behind your legs and gives that Star a thorough ticking off.

Such language. Ah well.

*Diphthongs are difficult. They were difficult for the Star too. Interesting.

**Girl eats a lot. She is definitely her brother’s sister, because then she does not rest until she has run it straight off again.  It turns out that the Comet is pretty much as energetic as the Star. Yes, I am exhausted. No, I do not want to contemplate the fact that they are only four and one respectively.

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 the art of conversation for babies.

The Comet likes to communicate in semaphore.

Don’t get me wrong, she’s just as vocal as the Star ever was. She coos, she gurgles, she murmurs, she rasps, she snorts and she wiffles.

But when she’s having a conversation with you, making her point, pausing for your contribution and replying with vigor, she pinwheels her legs energetically and punctuates her utterances with emphatic arm waving. The body language, combined as it is with the impressive grasp of the art of turn-taking, amuses you.

Babushka amuses the Comet.

It was strange and quite the cutest thing you’ve ever seen, watching a baby learn how to laugh*. There she was, doing her usual delighted wide open-mouthed smile as your MiL gurned at her and said, brightly, ‘aGOO! aGOO! aGOOaGOOaGOO! aGOO! aGOOaGOOaGOOaGOOaGOO! aGOO!’ and suddenly, her soft, throaty cluck of delight turned into a soft, throaty chuckle. Barely there, but quite distinct nonetheless.

Since then her family has been competing with each other to get her to do it again. She likes it when Papa imitates her snuffles. She finds the Star endlessly entertaining.

And she giggles for Mama when she sings.

*You do not remember the Star learning to laugh. Possibly you weren’t there. *sulks*

On the exploding Star.

You’ve spent nearly fifteen years of your life around adults learning English now. You feel quite at home with the mistakes they make, the concepts they have difficulty with and the way that they fail comprehensively to get to grips with articles.

So you find the way the Star acquires language completely fascinating. Mainly because it really is not quite the same, and you’ve never really had the opportunity to compare taught learning with full on just picking it up before. Or at least not in someone who doesn’t know anything about language when they set out.

Now of course some of that fascination is at just how quickly small human minds develop. The Star, for example, understands the concept of time. You feel this a big achievement for a two and a half year old. He says ‘Babushka go shopping’, ‘I did it’, ‘Where going?’ and ‘It gone!’ Notice that not only does he have the basic present and past tenses (present simple for ‘Babushka go[es]…’* and past simple for ‘I did it’**), but he has also mastered the continuous aspect (‘where [are we] going?’***, which you are assuming is present continuous given that he hasn’t shown much awareness of the concept of future time yet), and the perfect aspect (‘It [has] gone!’, present perfect****).

Believe me, any adult language learner who can differentiate between the simple, continuous and perfect aspects in English without conscious effort is well on the way to fluency. Particularly the perfect, which seems to defeat everybody, no matter what their language background

However, the interesting thing is that when he first started using them, you do not feel that the Star had really grasped tenses in any Chompskian way. It was not, you felt, that the Star had assimilated structural ‘formulas’ into which any relevant verb can be inserted in order to express the same concept. The Star used the phrases above correctly it is true, but almost exclusively in those words, as fixed chunks of language.

There are definite signs of breakthrough now though, with the –ing forms coming thick and fast and still entirely correctly now (‘Look! Doggie walking!’). He has also just started to invert subject and verb ( ‘is it…..?’ rather than ‘it is…’) to mark a question rather than a statement, which really is a pretty impressive piece of language engineering.

It’s the same with articles (a/an/the). He puts them in, while leaving them out is practically B’s only remaining grammatical deficiency in English. But only in phrases he knows and loves like ‘shut the door’ and ‘where the keys?’****

The Star in fact is like a little walking example of the lexical approach to English language teaching, the argument that fixed phrases are much more important that we usually give credit for and teaching discrete items of lexis and endless formulas is rather missing the point.

Of course, chunking is not just about grammar, but includes a lot of collocations – words that go together. For example the way that we say ‘a tall man’ rather than ‘a high man’. It’s noticeable that the Star says ‘fast asleep’ not ‘asleep’ when he is about to prod you and shout ‘wakey wakey’ in your ear of a morning, and ‘flying high’ (delightedly) when he is on the swings.

Unfortunately, the Star’s adjectives are mostly in Russian, and god knows you Russian isn’t sophisticated enough for correct chunks. Luckily, the Star’s Russian already far exceeds yours for the Star understands verbs of motion. He remembers to correctly distinguish between the verb you need to talk about going on foot and the one you need to talk about movement via car/ train/ bus, although you are forced to admit that he has only got two of the full variety of words to describe the different states the journey maker is in at the time of speaking.

He also does not use ‘na’ (‘here, take it’) to mean ‘die’ (‘oi, give it here!’) or vice versa. You are immensely impressed.

Even more astounding, though, is the Star’s ability with prepositions in English.

Prepositions are the bane of non-native speakers.

It’s not the ‘on the box/ in the box/ next to the box’ ones that give them the nervous twitch, or even time ones (why ‘in the morning’ but ‘at night’? Why ‘in July’ but ‘on Junly 23rd’? And so on). There are rules for those. Well, tendancies at least.

No it’s the completely arbitrary ones assigned to certain words for no reason whatsoever (‘succeed in’,, ‘good at’, apologise for’, ‘keen on’, etc etc etc. Etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc etc.). And as for phrasal verbs, the whole point of which is to take a verb, take a preposition (or, ok, an adverb) and slam them together to make a new work which bears no relation to any meaning its component parts have ( ‘get on’, ‘get down’, ‘get off with’, ‘get along’, ‘get over’, ‘get out of’, ‘get it up’, ‘get into’ ‘get through’,  ‘get back into’, etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc. Etc).

The Star uses phrasal verbs as though he is born to it. It is extremely disconcerting for you to hear someone with barely coherent English command you to take it off, turn it on, wake him up and put me down.

Luckily for your nerves, the Star is utterly pants at negatives.

Particularly amusing is the way he just doesn’t bother with any negative indicators at all. There he is, red faced and glaring, shouting ‘I like it! I like it!’ at the top of his voice. Or flinging his food crossly across the room with the words ‘Nada. Nada! NADA!’ [need].

When he does remember to add something, it’s usually ‘ne’ or ‘not’ before the verb. Which works perfectly in Russian, but isn’t quite there for English. That auxiliary verb problem again.

Despite this triumph for the Slavic language, you are not telling B at the moment that the Star is mainly still at the level of individual words in Russian, rather than actual coherent sentences that he is beginning to produce in English.

It might be a good idea if the MiL came back from her break soon.

* Used, correctly, to express routine, habitual behaviour.

** Used, correctly, to talk about a finished action in a finished time period. Usually when Papa asks him who broke the remote/ listened attentively at Russian class/ scattered Rice Crispies all over the floor/ helped Mama make the muffins/ pooed in his nappie instead of his potty/ drawn that beautiful picture after Mama has given Papa her daily report when he arrives home from work.

***Used, correctly, if repeatedly, to ask about an action in progress at the moment of speaking whenever you have both set out somewhere but have not yet actually arrived.

****Used, correctly, and with an expression of great surprise, to comment on a past action with present relevance. In this case why the toy duck/ apple/ piece of paper/ potato/ remote is not where he left it a few minutes ago.

*****The Star has the very Russian habit of leaving the verb ‘to be’ out. The astute reader will also have noticed the lack of auxiliary verbs in the examples of tenses. The interesting thing here is that none of these verbs have any serious lexical meaning. They are just there to convey the grammar, not the content of the utterance. So in ‘That doggy is walking’, ‘walking’ is the main verb, and ‘is’ is the auxiliary verb, for example.

Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism February 2011.

I am pleased to announce the February edition of the monthly Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.

What follows is a list of posts, written by bloggers from around the world, dedicated to the topic of bilingualism, multilingualism, language learning and raising bi (or multi) lingual and bi (or multi) cultural children.

If you would like to find out more about it, sign up for a newsletter, read previous carnivals, or find out how you can get more involved, Letizia Quaranta of Bilingue per Gioco is the organiser and the Carnival page is here. Regular Carnival goers should take note! This page has moved!

Without further ado…

For anyone setting out on the journey of raising bilingual children or for those thinking of changing their approach, Vanessa at Language, Music and More has written a very useful post summarizing the different approaches parents can take in raising their child bilingually, including a discussion of factors that might make one method more suitable than another. She has also taken the time to explode many of the myths surrounding bilinguals and bilingualism.

The curious incidents of polyglot children’s habit of making up languages in an attempt to make sense of the language systems they hear around them, as well as advice about how to cope with this is the subject of Maria’s post at Busy as a Bee in Paris.

Steffi from Mummy do That! also has some useful advice about the problem of fostering literacy in bilingual children, particularly those ‘at risk’ bilinguals who grow up in a bilingual home but in whose community only one of the languages is used.

Difficulties are also the topic of Smashedpea’s post at Intrepidly Bilingual, specifically the problem that playdates intended to allow children to use their minority language can be scuppered when you have two children who are determined to use the other language with each other.

For all those raising children bilingually who are not themselves native speakers of their target second language, Tamara at Non-Native Bilingualism has written an uplifting post about the difficulties of forming an emotional connection with your child if you are speaking to him or her in a language which is not your mother tongue – but how she has ultimately managed to do this herself.

Jen of Trilingual Trio is also interested in the difference between her expectations and the realities of the emotional bonds we form through language, both with respect to talking to our children and changing the language we speak to our significant others in.

And on a similar topic, we have an inspiring interview from Douglas Hofstader at Letizia’s Bilingue per Gioco blog, a man who raised his children bilingually in English and Italian, speaking only Italian to his children, despite not being  native speaker of Italian himself.

There is another profile of an Italian/English bilingual family, this time one  still in the process of raising bilingual children, and of their experiences of multicultural living at Sarah’s Bringing up Baby Bilingual.

In a moving post, Mamapoekie of Authentic Parenting focuses on the children’s perspective, specifically, her three year old daughter’s experience of culture shock when moving between Africa and the Belgium.

And Lauren of Hobo Mama has summarised her three and a half year old trilingual boy’s progress in each of his languages to date.

Her assessment if probably more generous than Lalou’s son’s idea of his competency in German at Laloulah, whose post also details her approach to building his confidence in his own abilities.

And a number of children this month are working on their own versions of that great children’s classic, Incy Wincy Spider. We have the Spanish version here at Tyeisha’s Tongue Tales and Babelmum’s children are mixing Arabic and English to produce Incy Wincy Ankaboot here at BabelKid.

But we also hear from an adult. Reinaldo of Life & Bits writes about the fact that there are different degrees of bilingualism and his own journey along the road to an impressive fluency in two languages.

This is also the subject of my post for this month’s carnival at Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things, although I wouldn’t pretend to have achieved Reinaldo’s level of competency (yet).

Next month’s Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism will be hosted at Multilingual Mama‘s blog. Looking forward to it already!

On calling yourself bilingual.

So Saturday was the end of Maslenitsa, the week preparatory to Lent, and so you celebrated this by standing in the middle of a freezing cold park in the centre of London, eating very superior blini smothered in smetana and raspberry jam, watching the Star stamp and hop around to the strains of an accordion along with a number of other Russian-speaking families.

And it occurred to you that you might be able to consider yourself bilingual.

It occurred to you, in fact, after the fifth person you were speaking to looked quite shocked when they found out you were British.

‘… but you speak such good Russian!’

Funnily enough, it’s since you left the motherland that your Russian has come on in leaps and bounds.

You think this is because you found the amount of Russian you were bombarded with while you were there was simply too overwhelming and you spent most of your time shutting it out. And not only was there a lot of it, but it was so competently spoken. The shifts you went to to avoid actually having to talk to people and be shown up as a bumbling idiot in the communication department.

Since then, until the Star was born you really only had to put up with your Mother in Law on her periodic month-long visits. Much more non-threatening. And yet it was almost completely impossible to avoid conversations with her, partly because you have never lived in particularly spacious surroundings in the UK, and partly because you were often the one who took her sightseeing. Explaining the many unsavoury moments from Royal history, even with the help of hand gestures, did wonders for your vocabulary as did the arrival of the Star, with whom your Mother in Law has been quite involved. As a result, you keep forgetting what key items of baby equipment are called in English. And of course, there are all the nursery rhymes that you have picked up. There’s a lot to be said for repetition. Previously, you used to accidentally memorise advertising jingles.

Of course, the level of Russian spoken in and around the house has also gone up because B is making a big effort to speak as much Russian with and around the Star. And there’s a lot of repetition there too. Your collection of verbs, always one of your major deficiencies, is coming along nicely. Mainly in the negative (as in don’t touch, don’t throw, don’t kick, don’t run, don’t jump, don’t jump on the bed, don;t jump on me, don’t fall, don’t throw up, don’t throw up on me, don’t cry, don’t shout, don’t scream and don’t do that), but still.

But that was all in the family. It wasn’t until you were back in Russia this summer and actually interacting with the natives that you realised that something had changed. At first, you thought that you had just thrown some of your inhibitions away and were more relaxed about just bludgeoning your message through regardless, but that didn’t explain why you seemed to be understanding more as well.

And lately, you’ve been holding your own amongst the other mothers at the Star’s Russian group.

Who were all also surprised to find that you are not from one of the Baltic republics.

Now you don’t want to overstate your fluency either. The main reason the Russians you meet in the UK don’t immediately assume you are British as soon as you mangle your sdraastvoooooteee  is that the concept of a British woman being married to a Russian man is not one they have come across before. You know this because they tell you so. You have learned not to take the accompanying speculative stare too personally.

You also gather that you are almost unique amongst British spouses in general in being able to speak any Russian at all.

And of course, by the time you reached the park, you have rehearsed any number of times introductions, preliminary personal information exchange, comparing children, admonishing children, cleaning children up, feeding children, playing games with children, and discussing the best way to make sure they learn Russian properly. If the conversation veers wildly into new territory too suddenly, you still can’t keep up very well.

So to be honest, the reason you are thinking you might be allowed to call yourself bilingual isn’t because of how good your Russian is, because in reality it is still quite limited and riddled with horrendous grammar.

But you do use Russian quite a lot these days. And the other day, when you spent a whole day with your brother, it was so very disconcerting not to be able to drop into Russian to make a rude comment about that woman over there’s terrible hairstyle, or have him understand when you and the Star exclaimed over the colour of the crane over there in Russian, or for him to look blank when B came home and the Star told his Papa what he had been doing and you said that actually, no you hadn’t eaten kasha or seen a horse or a shark or broken the toy train, but you had eaten toast, and seen two cats and a really big dog and broken the toy aeroplane.

Before Russian was a matter of survival. Now it is at the heart of your family life, as indispensable as regular rows about the way husbands fling their socks with abandon all over the house. It’s that importance in your life which gives it second language status.

Now you just have to get on and actually learn to speak it properly.