Language exposure and practices
What an exciting time! Alongside the ever-blossoming vocabularies the two grammar systems are gradually shaping up. Maximilian and Zoe experiment with their languages, they use a few conjugations and declensions, bend words and code-switch (mix Swedish and Russian in one sentence). Linguistic creativity is developing and is a source of a few smiles from Mom and Dad.
Swedish or Russian? The children started their preschool just under 2 years of age. It was then that their preference for Swedish over Russian started to develop, especially when they talked to one another. After all, Swedish is spoken in many more domains here in Sweden than Russian. Max and Zoe only hear Russian from me and at play-dates that I arrange with other Russian-speaking families (plus when speaking to their grandparents in Russia during video-calls, as well as through cartoons and films in Russian). However, when I come to pick Max and Zoe up from the preschool, they start talking to me in Russian almost 100% of the cases. At home they speak both Swedish and Russian to me, and I answer in Russian. So, it seems that after a day in the preschool, after about 9 hours of Swedish only, seeing me works like a switch for them. They associate me with Russian, not Swedish.
When Max and Zoe speak to each other, they prefer to speak Swedish but they do speak Russian from time to time, or insert Russian words here and there. They have a Swedish accent when they speak Russian. At Russian play-dates the children inevitably slide into speaking Swedish to each other, peer-communication is strongly associated with daycare and Swedish. We, the Russian-speaking mothers, have decided that we should organise a few games in Russian to kick-start play-dates in Russian next time.
Sentences. At the age of 2 years and 5 months Max and Zoe’s sentences consist of 4-5 words. By the time they turned three they developed into real chatterboxes, especially Zoe. Their sentences were syntactically complex, and their vocabularies became so diverse that it was hard to keep track of new words.
At the age of 2 years and 11 months Zoe started asking a lot of “varför” or “почему” (Swe. and Rus. for “why?”). She liked asking this question and I could see that she was proud of the fact that she understood what the question meant and how it could develop the conversation. With this understanding, her ability to build sentences with cause-effect relation in them also got stronger. Before she would look at me rather confused when I asked her to explain why something happened or was happening. Just before three years of age, she and her brother tried to come up with reasons for various situations:
– Почему девочка плачет? ( Why is the girls crying?)
– Она хочет к маме! (She wants to go to her Mom.)
Third person vs first person. Both children still prefer to talk about themselves in third person at the age of 2,5 years:“Зоя сидит там! Это Зоин стул!” – Rus. “Zoe sits there! It is Zoe’s chair!” “Макс любит торт!” – Rus. “Max likes cake!”
Speech therapist Olga Agashkina (Агашкина Ольга) informs the mothers who follow www.mama.ru, a webside created by developmental psychologists, speech experts and other knowledgeable experts in the domain of children’s development, that it is normal for children under 3 years of age to refer to themselves in third person due to their underdeveloped sense of individuality and independence from others around them. She continues that although there is no definite time-frame for the children to switch to first-person narration, parents should have a closer look at their children’s psychological and cognitive development if their children continue to refer to themselves in third person after the age of four.
As they approach the magical age of 3, Zoe and Max start favouring first-person narrative. They like the assertive “Jag!” or “Я!” (Swe./Rus. “I”). They seem to have a clearer understanding of their position in the world:
“Det var jag som målat det, mamma!” – Swe. “It was I who painted it, mommy!”
“Это я сделала, мамочка!” – Rus. “I did it, mommy!”
Thus, it is important now to emphasise who the agent, the doer, of the action is, especially if the doer is the beloved “I”.
Furthermore, by the age of three they started saying sentences like: “Mamma, jag pratar med dig“/”Мама, я разговариваю с тобой!” (Mama, I am talking to you!), “Jag vill inte prata med dig!” (I don’t want to talk to you!), “Prata inte med mig!” (Don’t talk to me!). They must have acquired these ways to exercise their independence and authority at the preschool because we never say anything like that in our family. It is actually cute to hear something like this. Our children remind us that we should take them seriously.
Genitive. At the age of 2 years and 5 months, both Max and Zoe were comfortable with using Genitive in Russian and Swedish:“Папина куртка” – Rus. “Dad’s jacket”, “мамина сумка” – Rus. “Mom’s bag” “Pappas cykel” – Swe. “Dad’s bicycle”, “mammas hatt” – Swe. “Mom’s hat”
There was still confusion about the use of feminine and masculine verb suffixes in Russian in the past tense, and feminine suffixes prevailed all the way to three years:“Макс проснулась!” – Rus. “Max has woken up!” (used with a feminine ending)
Occasionally Max and Zoe could build a genitive incorrectly, and it was fun to analyse their logic when they came up with such forms: мальчикин велосипед (Rus. “boy’s bike”, an incorrect suffix in Russian)
Plurals. At this age, both children were experimenting with plurals in both languages. Both Swedish and Russian nouns have a more complicated way to build their plurals than, for example, English. The plural endings depend on the group that each noun belongs to, which increases the risk for mixing different endings. Still Max and Zoe’s success rate was rather high. Often, if Max or Zoe were not sure about which ending to use, they could use a singular form instead, ex. “много машина”/”många bil” (Rus./Swe. “many car”).
In Russian the situation with changing nouns according to the number is further complicated by the fact that the plural endings have their declensions too, like singular endings. If you say “two books, five books, with five books, about two books, etc” in Russian, each time the noun “book” (книга) will have a different ending. It is not surprising then that Max and Zoe made mistakes when they used plurals at the age of 2 years and 5 months!
Making up singular forms of some words that are normally used in plural, like “slippers”, was also fun. Thus, at 2 years and 11 months Zoe said “эта тапка” instead of “этот тапок” (Rus. “this slipper” used as feminine instead of masculine).
Negation. Inte (Swe. “not) is Max and Zoe’s favourite way to negate, both in predominantly Swedish as well as predominantly Russian sentences:“Inte pappa sova!/Pappa inte sova!” (Swe. “Daddy not to sleep!”) “Inte кушать кашку, мама!” (Rus. “Not to eat the porridge, Mommy!”
Zoe was the master of “inte”, “nej”, “не”, “нет” at this age (Swe./Rus. for “not” and “no”), meaning that she was constantly testing her independence and she loved doing everything her way. Max was also full of protests well in accordance with the proverbial “terrible twos”, but if Max just did not want to be disturbed and distracted from what he was doing, Zoe did not mind doing what was demanded of her, but she wanted to do it HER way:“Inte här tvätta händerna. Där tvätta händerna, Mamma! Där!” (Swe. “Not to wash the hands here. To wash the hands there, Mommy! There!”
“Не хочу!”/”Vill inte!” (Rus./Swe. “I don’t want!”) and “Не буду!” (Rus. “I will not” (do something)) became Max and Zoe’s best friends and Martin and my worst enemies at this age.
Even as a part of set phrases Russian “не” became Swedish “inte”:
“Я чуть inte упал!” (Rus. “I almost fell”, has a particle “not” in it which is substituted by the same particle in Swedish “inte”).
Word order. This aspect of grammar is of greater importance for Swedish than for Russian, since in Russian the word order is not absolute and variations are allowed (at least something is easier in Russian than in Swedish!). At 2 years and 11 months Zoe and Max’s word order in Swedish was relatively correct. There were no serious problems with the word order.
One of my favourite websites for parents www.babycenter.com offers the following talking timeline for this age (the timeline is getting more English-language-specific if compared with previous years, but one arguably can draw parallels and compare with other languages):
Knows 150 to 300 words. Uses short, two- or three-word sentences with lots of pauses (“Baby … fall down!” “Me go … school?”).
2 to 3 years
Can carry on a simple conversation about something in the immediate environment. Asks simple questions frequently. Expands phrases from three- to six-word sentences and develops a vocabulary of 450 words, including lots of verbs. Uses past tense by tacking on a “d” sound to verbs (“runned”) and plurals by adding an “s” sound to nouns (“mans”). Uses pronouns (I, she, we) correctly.
Red flag: If your 2- or 3-year-old echoes your questions rather than answering them, tell her doctor. This could be an early sign of a language delay.