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.



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?