Sunday, 2 March 2014

Hopefully exciting developments

Unfortunately, this blog has been rather dormant for the last year or so. My linguistics dissertation took up all my writing energy and made me neglect all other ramblings. I've now completed my Masters, and we're planning big changes which make this blog relevant again!

The plan (if the current geopolitical turmoil settles down) is for us to move to Russia for a couple of years and send the kids to French school while we are there. This big decision has many ramifications, but, purely on the languages front, it will be fascinating to see how the kids' languages are affected, how soon we'll see an impact, and what differences we see between the three children.

In many other respects, this will be a fascinating experience as we as a family will get a chance to live in today's Russia and experience near-total immersion in Russian culture - near-total as we will also partly be immersing in French school culture, and presumably international expat culture if there is such a thing.

This decision is not without its challenges however, and the first major one of these is linked to what is happening in Ukraine as I write. Can we move to a country which has seemingly declared war on a neighbour? Would it be easier to do this if one of us were not Russian? Is it safe? Is it economically viable? Is it ethical? We are still wrestling with these questions.

In any case, for all concerned on the ground, and for the wider world, I hope for peace.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Baby sign language

Little Butterfly is now 10 months and is definitely communicating and interacting much more. She has learnt to wave, and does so whether people say 'au revoir', 'bye bye' or 'пока', but then of course she is also responding to the cue of people putting coats on, waving and going to the door so there are lots of things that help her work out what is going on.

Butterfly has also learnt her first other 'sign' - whenever she tries what to touch a hot cup of tea or when a mouthful of food is too hot for her, I have been saying 'chaud' (hot in French) and doing an informal sign. And now she does the sign herself. Hooray!

We've never attended baby signing lessons or anything, but I've found with all three little bugs that a few signs when they were small enabled a bit of early communication and were actually quite useful with three languages: Butterfly can see that waving goes with the words in all three languages, so this will hopefully help her work out that they mean similar things. Her dad can now use the 'hot' sign and say the word in Russian. We do a few signs for animals (along with animal sounds), and as these are constant, they can hopefully act as a further cue for her that the different words in each language mean the same thing.

I was speaking to some parents of a trilingual child recently, and they were surprised that their son (aged nearly 2) was able to cope with several words for a single thing (e.g. 'voiture' and 'car'). However, this sort of thing happens even with one language: children progressively have to disentangle 'bye bye', 'ta ta', 'see you later' etc. so adding an extra language or two is only extending an existing process of language acquisition.

I look forward to seeing little Butterfly communicate more and more over the coming months!

Friday, 22 March 2013

Useful tools

I haven't posted for a while as I have been busy trying to write my dissertation, but I thought I'd post with a few thoughts on things that have helped me or others I've spoken to on the path to trilingualism.

1. The consistency question
We have certainly found that being consistent and only speaking our non-community languages to our kids has helped tremendously. After an initial effort when Dragonfly was born as I certainly hadn't been speaking French much for about 10 years, it has become second nature.
However, I'd say it's not necessarily the only approach that might work: it all depends on other factors. For instance, if you have grandparents around a lot, or spend extended periods in the relevant country, the children might get enough exposure to the languages from that.

2. Having a language in common
Many couples in trilingual families speak the community language to each other as that's the only language they share. We tend to do that too, but can also speak Russian to each other and that does help: if we make an effort to speak Russian at home it drastically increases the amount of Russian the kids hear. We also occasionally have a 'Russian breakfast' or 'Russian car journey' when we all speak Russian as that is the language the little bugs hear the least.
It also helps that we both understand what's going on when we each speak our respective languages to the kids - we don't have to translate everything or feel awkward that the other parent is left out of a conversation although we do sound like a family of mad people!
On the other hand, a friend of mind pointed out that, if you don't understand your partner's language you don't have to pretend you don't understand when the child addresses you in that language: you really don't. So this can make a 'strict' approach to utterances in the 'wrong' language come naturally.

3. Modern media
We are so lucky to be able to access media from all over the world at the touch of a button these days. Youtube is full of cartoons and films in any country, you can get apps and games in all sorts of languages, you can order books from most places to be delivered to your doorstep. Several parents I have spoken to recently do as we do and use these 'treats' as tools in their language, for instance allowing TV but only in one of the non-community languages.

4. Fun fun fun!
Related to the above, we find that the more fun the kids have with their languages, the better. The other day, they were watching a slapstick Soviet comedy from their dad's childhood and they were delighted.  Both Dragonfly and Bee love singing all the French songs from my childhood (as well as some additional ones we've discovered on various family CDs). If we go on holiday to France or Russia, we take them to as many fun things that involve language as possible: this could be the theatre, puppet shows, the circus, ski lessons, museum talks, arts and crafts activities etc. If we're in the car, we'll listen to hours of audiobooks in all three languages - it makes long journeys so much easier! Bee loves games so we play lots of games with him and many of these involve a lot of talking. Bee has also discovered football and as this is definitely his dad's thing and not mine, he has to speak to his dad in Russian to discuss the latest scores and request that they watch clips of the latest games.

5. Complementary schools and other sources
At the moment, Dragonfly and Bee go to an after school Russian club and that has helped their Russian along quite a lot. They've also learnt some classic Russian kids' songs and a bit of Russian folk dancing which all builds up their Russian links.
However, we used to attend another one locally, and it was a drag! 4 hours every Saturday involving science, mathematics etc. although Dragonfly was only 4 years old. It was such a chore that it was turning her against Russian and we dropped it. Partly for this reason, we wouldn't add a French club at this stage: school overload is never great for kids' motivation!
We've also briefly thought about sending the little bugs to a French or Russian school for their main school, but the dilemma is that it would give a very strong weight to one language, which doesn't seem right to us. If one language is to dominate, we feel it is 'fairer' that it is the community language.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


Much to the little bugs' delight, we've recently acquired an iPad. I've been busy looking for apps they would enjoy and that would also be language related. I've found a few for French (details coming in a later post) but Russian-language apps are harder to come by.

The only Russian-language one that seems to have any success so far is Wordeaters (

This app involves dragging Russian words that float across the screen into the mouth of the head that has guessed the right meaning (or vice versa) and the word is eaten up. It's pure translating, but both Dragonfly and Bee play it from time to time, so it seems to be sufficiently entertaining and it certainly helps them work on their vocabulary and reading skills. The word is also read out so they hear the correct pronunciation.

The app also works with English-French, English-Spanish and English-Russian but we haven't tested these combinations.

Has anyone come across any other good apps for kids that use Russian?

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The power of the community language

We went to lunch with some friends today. They are both Russian, live in London and have two children. They all speak Russian so it was great for our children's Russian to have an afternoon of playing in the language: although we have a few Russian friends, very few of them have children who won't automatically slip into English with other children (and many have children who don't speak Russian at all).

What was interesting was that they make a particular point about speaking Russian to their children: they forbid the use of English at home and also constantly remind each other to stick to Russian as otherwise they find that they slip into English. So even when everyone in the family speaks another language to start with, English creeps in and seems to gradually take over!

This highlights the challenge for bilingual and trilingual families: if English (or whatever the community language might be) tends to dominate when both parents speak the same other language, this is even more the case for families where each additional language is only spoken by one parent. So well done to all who manage to keep multiple languages going!

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Overregularisation chuckles

Yesterday, Bee made us chuckle: Dragonfly was telling us about something that she couldn't do 'я не могла ...' (a ya ne mogla) and Bee, ever competitive, retorted that he could: 'а я могол' (a ya mogol). The correct form would have been 'а я мог' (a ya mog) but he was applying the rule that verbs in the past tense end in -ла (-la) in the feminine but in  -ел (-el) or  -ал (-al) in the masculine, so 'to see' (видеть - videt') becomes 'видела' (videla) in the feminine and 'видел' (videl) in the masculine. So могол was a fair attempt although it did sound funny. 

Last year, when I was reading up on language acquisition, I read that this phenomenon of children's language acquisition follows a U-shaped curve: First, children learn a few words and phrases wholesale so might correctly say something like 'I went to the shops' or 'I ate my dinner'. But then they start acquiring rules (e.g. that one adds -ed to a verb to create a past tense, as in 'jump - I jumped'). So then they apply this rule too widely, treating irregular words as if they are regular ('overregularising'), so might say the familiar child forms of 'I goed to the shops' and 'I eated my dinner'. And then they come out at the other end of the curve by working out that some verbs don't follow the rule they have acquired and learning how they function. 

So apart from making us chuckle, Bee's могол is encouraging: perhaps he is beginning to internalise the grammatical rules of Russian rather than simply repeating phrases. It will be interesting to see if these overregularisations increase as we progress to the bottom of the U.

Sunday, 16 December 2012


It's Elka / Елка season in this house. A elka is a Christmas (or New Year) tree, but it also refers to a New Year show for kids with дед мороз (Grandfather Frost) and so on. 

Last weekend, Dragonfly and Bee took part in their Russian club's elka, and had to learn their lines, steps and songs. A bit like the school nativity play but with no nativity story - all on a wintry theme of snow, ice, Grandfather frost and his helper/ daughter Snegurochka ... so when we announced that they were going to a big one yesterday with their Babushka (grandma), they were worried that they hadn't rehearsed! 

But yesterday's one ( was just a show (phew!), so no performing was needed. However, despite their nerves, last week's was much more fun, in particular for Dragonfly, who found the Kremlin Elka boooring. Bee was more positive. Judging by Bee's rather dodgy photography, seems to have involved people dressed up as animals. Perhaps 9-year-olds are too old for this sort of thing?