On naming conventions.

The issue of names have revealed another huge chasm between the way the Star sees things and the world view of the Comet.

In the UK the Star has a name which anyone under forty and not Russian has to say ‘what?’ a few times before they get it (and then they will still mispronounce it). Anyone over forty tends to peg the inspiration fairly accurately to a US spy series from the 1960s. They still say it wrongly though.

This lack of notoriety is just fine by you although you do feel the urge to shout at people about their placement of stress on the wrong syLAble sometimes. What is less fine is that this name, which in Russia used to be acceptably recognisable but relatively uncommon, has, along with a lot of pre-Soviet monikers, suddenly become a lot more popular. In fact, you can barely enter a playground these days without tripping over at least three more boys with the same name. You, who never met another Solnushka until you shared a house with one at Uni, find this quite unsettling. It’s still only in the top 25 or so rather than the top ten, but perhaps, after all, you should have gone with Ignat.

Ah well. Next time.

Anyway. The Star, perhaps because for a long time he had never met anyone with his name, your name, B’s name, or his best friend’s name, would react with astonishment whenever he heard the name of one of his classmates applied to characters on the telly. He found it very hard indeed to grasp the concept that they weren’t referring to the people he knew.

Luckily many of the children at his school have totally bonkers names too, so this didn’t happen too often.

The Star also developed a unique approach to what he called his toys.

Nonsense words.

Often unpronounceable nonsense words. Your absolute favourite was the dinosaur known as Harbel de Nosey, said as though there was a mechisnack on the end of the first word.

These days, he tends to re-purpose actual words. Hopefully he will work through this phase by calling his fish things like Pop and Chop, rather than his first set of twins. But you do rather pity his future children.

You blame the girl at his school called Chardonnay. Or rather, her mother.

The Comet, by contrast, has a fairly normal name in both English and Russian.

There is the occasional bit of confusion over the fact that her Babushka shares it, but by and large it passes unremarked, except that almost everyone can think of a character from literature with the same name, and it is invariably not a particularly pleasant person.

The first person to find a positive role model for the Comet in the form of a famous person of the same name gets a sweetie. So far, it hasn’t happened yet. Bugger.

But the impact this mundanity has had on the Comet is clear to see. Horses are all called Horsey. Zebras are Zebra. Girafes are Girafe. Princesses are all Princessa, baby dolls are My Baby and all unicorns are called Licorn, which is as close as she can get. Very ocassionally she will strecth a point and add a defining adjective, like Big Horsey or Small Horsey or Wombat Horsey (it looks like a wombat. No, really, it does), which is good because you have a lot of horseys lying about the place these days and they are all her favourites.

Or they are called Comet.

Never let it be said your daughter has not inherited anything from you.

Ruthless self-centredness clearly runs in the family.


On rude words.

You swear. A certain amount.

Mainly in the car. You say ‘oh BUGGER!’ quite a lot when driving around London. Also, ‘BOLLOCKS!’ and sometimes ‘You unprintable numpty! Don’t you honk at me/ cut me up/ steal my parking space/ drive at 2 miles an hour when the traffic is unusually light!’

The Star has picked up on this. You have been called aside by his teacher for a quiet word. The Star, she said, dropped his scarf on the floor. And then he said (whispering) ‘oh BUGGER!’. You looked innocent, shook your head sorrowfully and taught him to say ‘oh PANTS!’ instead. Well hey, it always worked on teenage language students.They found it hilarious enough to actually use.

Sure enough, since four year olds think ‘Poo!’ is the last word in comedy this was very successful, until your cunning came up against the difference between language learning and language acquisition.

Language acquirers extrapolate rules based on examples and apply them to new bits of language. Children go through a phase, for example, where they take the rule for Past Simple regular verbs (add, broadly speaking, ‘ed’) and apply it to all verbs, little realising that the English language is sneaky and will require them to learn off by heart whole swathes of other irregular, largely unpredictable past tense forms too. Children say, in short, ‘He writed…’ rather than ‘He wrote…’

So it should have come as no surprise that given the example of ‘oh PANTS!’, you caught your son saying ‘oh COATS!’ the other day.

And perhaps it wouldn’t have, except in the mouth of the Star, and given that comprehension is in part made up of us hearing what we expect to hear in any given context, the expletive ‘oh COATS!’ sounds a lot like…..

Yes, quite.

You hate to think what his teacher will say.

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.

On the fear of fur coats mark two.

OK, so you’ve had your third blog post published by the BBC World Service, this time about the difference between the way your son and daughter have acquired sounds. This is a sort of follow up to the post you wrote about your son many moons ago, but also arose out of you making an amusing but ultimately totally wrong assumption, which you totally got called on on everybody’s favourite website, h2g2, a conversation which ended up being an interesting discussion of first words in general.

My daughter started making consonants sounds a while ago, which was, of course, very exciting. They were not very recognisable consonant sounds at first, and this was more exciting still as it meant I could play a second round of ‘guess what order my child will acquire sounds’.

My son’s first proper syllable went ‘Gagagagaga’ closely followed by ‘Dadadadada’. This was rather disappointing. We were using ‘Papa’ for the father-figure at this point, rather than the English ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’, but on the other hand I had been regularly chanting ‘Mamamamamama’ at him since birth.

In fact my son went on to produce ‘Babababa’ and ‘Papapapapa’ well before anything like an ‘Mmmmm’ crossed his lips, and I consoled myself by looking at the International Phonemic Alphabet, which I am sure is much more familiar to Russians struggling with the eccentricities of English spelling vs pronunciation than it is to British people. I noted that my son was working his way along the top row from right to left, and starting with voiced sounds.* I also couldn’t see that his potential bilingualism would have much to do with it, the top lines being much of a muchness for both English and Russian.

When my daughter’s first syllable turned out to be ‘Mamamamama’ I was, therefore, quite surprised and revisited the issue.

Of course, a friend of mine claims that first children tend to say ‘Dada/Papa’ before ‘Mama’ because mothers spend so much of their day talking about this exciting person who turns up just in time to read the kid a story at bedtime. The second child just hears the first child saying ‘Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama!’ all day.

That said, it turns out there is research on the order of consonant acquisition out there. And low and behold, across a number of different languages the top two lines of the phonemic chart seem the easiest for children to make and are therefore the first said.

Both Russian and British parents will probably also recognise that it is the group of sounds in the middle of the chart that cause problems, the sounds such as ‘th’ or ‘sh/ш’ or ‘ch/ч’ or‘ц’. Interestingly, and this is the point my son is at now, both the English and the Russian ‘r’ gives the most trouble, despite the fact that they are rather different. I am told that mastery of the rolled ‘r’ may not come until my son is closer to five than four, although he also has problems with ‘l’. Is the inability to say, for example, ‘la’ and say ‘ya’ instead also common for purely Russian speaking children too?

I ask because I am fascinated by the idea that their bilingualism could show itself at the most basic levels of their language. Because although the most definite results for the order of consonant acquisition are for groups of consonants rather than precisely which consonant will come in which order, most English speaking children at least tend to go from right to left, from the ‘Mamamamama’ to the ‘Gagagagagagaga’. So totally opposite to the way your son did it.

I find this interesting as the reason given is that ‘m’ and ‘b’ and are made at the front of the mouth whereas ‘d’ and ‘g’ towards the back. And I often think that Russian is a very back of the mouth language compared to English. In fact, the musical director for a British choir I used to sing with once suggested that when we had to sing in Russian, we should imagine that we were also trying to swallow a watermelon, and laugh all you want, my husband was actually quite impressed by our efforts to sound Slavic when he came to the eventual concert.

Of course, this does rather open the question of why my daughter seems to be following the classic monolingual English speaker route.

Perhaps my son was simply showing his innate perversity rather than his deep Russian soul. But then since my daughter is always with me, my son talks to me in English and my son talks A LOT, perhaps, this is just a version of the first child influencing the second child’s first sounds after all.

*Put your hand on your throat and say ‘vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv.’ Feel the vibration? That’s a voiced sound. Now try ‘ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff.’ That’s not.

On stress management.

So last Sunday, just two weeks after you wielded absolute power via Twitter over the BBC’s Formula One coverage, you were shamed on live international TV by the same commentator, Martin Brundle, who had previously accepted your correction of his pronunciation of the Russian driver PetROV’s name.

He’d asked PetROV how to pronounce his name, and come away with the impression that the way that he, Martin, and every other English speaker says it (‘PETrov’) was, in fact, correct.

‘After all he should know,’ he ended triumphantly.*

You can think of a number of reasons for the discrepancy between your understanding of the pronunciation and Martin’s**.

  • You are wrong. This is clearly not an option.
  • PetROV is wrong. Now he has been living abroad for a while. You strongly suspect that he has given up worrying about the mad things English speakers do to his name. If Martin said ‘Am I saying this right? PETrov?’ you can well imagine him thinking himself lucky that his name wasn’t being pronounced ‘Peters’ and nodding enthusiastically.
  • Martin is wrong.
Now you do not rule out option two, but in fact you are going for door number three as you would not be at all surprised if the truth is that when PetROV growled ‘PetROV’, Martin heard ‘PETrov regardless. And here’s why.

One of the problems people encounter with language learning, when learning a new language rather than acquiring more than one language as a child, is the amount of interference they get from their native tongue.

This is particularly pronounced when it comes to pronunciation.

Theoretically, babies are born with the potential to speak any language, although recent studies show that even in the womb they are picking up elements of what will become their native tongue. It doesn’t take long before babies are showing a marked preference towards what will become their mother tongue(s). Even babies’ babble is different for different languages.

This means that out of the full range of sounds a human mouth can make, sooner rather than later, they start to fixate on a really rather limited number. And it’s not just sounds either, but things like patterns in sentence and word stress and intonation. Babies quickly get used to a particular way of declaiming a language and, and this is the important bit, they start to lose the ability to really hear, let alone produce, nuances in the pronunciation in other languages.

People tend to think it’s the individual sounds they need to pay attention to in pronunciation. But while you can have a lot of fun discussing sheets with B on laundry day because Russians do not have a long/ short vowel distinction and tend to pronounce the ‘i’ and ‘ee’ in ‘trip’ and ‘tree’ the same, mainly all that mispronunciation of sounds does is tip other people off that you are someone with a charmingly other accent.

Word stress is important for comprehension, much more so than the pronunciation of individual sounds. There are some real WTF moments to be had when struggling to work out what somebody who has just put the stress on the wrong syLAble of a key word actually means.

Now stress in English is achieved in three ways. Firstly, a stressed syllable will be louder than other syllables. So far so obvious. But it will also be longer than other syllables and higher in pitch.

This is not the same in all languages. In French, for example, all syllables take the same mount of time to say, regardless of stress.

Russian has a much narrower pitch range than English. Their lows are not as low and their highs are not as high.

This is mainly a problem in intonation, especially as they also change pitch less often in any given utterance.

And what does intonation convey? Politeness, interest, emotion.  In particular, in English we show politeness and interest by starting really high, changing pitch often and swooping up to the full height or full low of our range.

Most Russians, then, tend to come across as flat, monotone, disinterested, rude.

It also means that English speakers sound tragically over excited about virtually everything when they speak Russian. Russians habitually think that English speakers are more tired, more excited, more angry, more everything than they actually are whether they are speaking Russian or English.

And that means it is harder for a native English speaker to spot, let alone reproduce, word stress in Russian. They are only doing two and a half of the three things the English speaker does.

It doesn’t help that in this case, English two-syllable nouns almost always put the stress on the first one.

Now spotting pronunciation nuances, including word stress, is one of those skills that comes with practice.

You are pretty good at it. You have spent 15 years in classrooms wondering why Kirill is virtually incomprehensible and trying to fix it. That’s a lot of time tuning your ear into mistakes.

Martin Brundle clearly isn’t.

Not that he should feel too bad about it. He can hear things in the note of an engine that you wouldn’t even with a pause button and the volume turned up high.

But given that he might feel a little dubious about accepting the expertise of some pseudonymous Internet weirdo, and because you, obviously feel the need to prove to the Internet at large that you are the one who is right, you have decided to provide him, and the rest of the Formula One presenters with some more, some many more examples of Russian people, commentators, newscasters and random fans saying ‘petROV’, sometimes quite loudly, in the hope that if it is repeated often enough they will be able to get their ear in.

You would also like them to pay attention to the fact that there’s a rolled R and the ‘v’ sound at the end is much softer, more like an F, than they are expecting.

But you will be magnanimous in victory and give them till the end of the season to get that right.

The video evidence***.

A feature on Vitaly PetROV on the news. His name is at 9 seconds, 50 secs, 1 minute 25 and 2 mins 34. Or thereabouts.

Another news item. With an interview! See 50 secs, 2 mins 5, 2 mins 42,  3 mins 14, 4 mins 52 and 5 mins 10.

Sports news reports this time. See 10secs, 21 secs, 50 secs and probably at points thereafter as well (and bask in PetROV’s podium).

PetROV is at some promotional event. See 30 secs, 4 mins 18, 4 mins 51, and especially 5 mins 40 – 6 mins where the commentator gets quite shouty. And 6 mins 30. Also, aren’t F1 cars loud?

Last but not least, PetROV is unveiling something in GUM. Organised chanting by the crowd before 1 minute.

*The race is till up on iPlayer for one more day if people would like to witness your humiliation first hand. The section in question is sometime soonish after the halfway point in the race. No, you are not going to be more specific than that.

**Now you are in an actually back and forth dialogue, you are even more sure that you are on first name terms with Marty.

***It is legal, apparently, for you to splice these videos together to make one long ‘petROVpetROVpetROVpetROVpetROV’ drone. Something to do with satirical purposes.**** You would appreciate any help on whether it is possible.

****Satirical? Someone on the TV is WRONG! This is deadly serious.

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*