Immersion, alphabets, and new beginnings.
This is a year when language development gets serious. New skills, like recognising letters in both alphabets (first Swedish, and then – after a short but fierce denial stage – Russian), reading and writing bud just before the children turn four. Zoë’s communication skills blossom, and Max is turning into a real language nerd, a name given to him by my dear colleague, Anna, from Södra Latin Gymnasium. Yep, I have started working too, which has greatly affected our language situation at home.
Swedish or Russian? Help! Swedish is completely taking over Russian! Max and Zoë prefer speaking Swedish, it is a more “natural” language for them, and it dominates during the times when they play with each other. Zoë, as a considerate person with a well-developed empathy, makes a bigger effort to speak Russian to me, but Max is too busy to lose time trying to come up with the words he needs. I do not despair and continue to reply in Russian even if I am addressed in Swedish. Occasionally it works to ask the children to repeat what they have just said in Russian, especially with Zoë, but I feel her pain when I see her searching for the right words, pausing here and there, and repeating a word over and over again struggling to find a good enough word to follow.
The situation changes for the better after our trip to Russia in summer 2015. The four of us were there together for two weeks, and then Martin and I flew back home, while Max and Zoë stayed behind for five more days to be later brought back to Sweden by their Russian grandparents. Furthermore, my parents and my paternal grandmother, who brought back Max and Zoë, stayed in Sweden for ten days. That is what I call immersion!
The kids dealt with the immersion differently. When we arrived in Barnaul, Zoë embraced the new situation from the first minute. It was as if she concluded: they speak Russian here, all of them, and so will I! She was very particular about it: she exaggerated pronunciation, and started working on her fricatives, like /∫/ and /t∫/, trying to pronounce them properly. She picked up new phrases and colloquial expressions from day one.
Max, on the other hand, was in denial at first. Why put an effort when Mom and Dad are here, and they understand Swedish? At one point I overheard a conversation:
Zoë: I can speak both Russian and Swedish.
Max: I can only speak Swedish.
My heart sank. I was eager to see what would happen when Martin and I left for Sweden.
Everything went super well. Max’s Russian got better with every day he spent in Russia without us. There was contextual code-switching, when the kids would speak Swedish to each other and then switch to Russian when speaking to everyone else. Zoë and Max’s Russian skills significantly improved after those five days without me and Martin. At the airport in Stockholm, however, Max heard announcements in Swedish and leaped for joy: “They are speaking Swedish! Swedish!!!” He was obviously relieved to be able to speak Swedish again, although his Russian was at a much higher level than before the trip. After just five days without Swedish we could even hear Max and Zoë speaking Russian to each other when they were playing together. This would be a rare case before the trip. Thus, the trip charged our “Russian-language battery”, and the effect lasted for about 6 months when a familiar trend of Swedish gradually ousting Russian from our children’s everyday life, re-emerged.
Sentences. Sentences in Russian and Swedish are complex, adult-like, and both Max and Zoë can easily make themselves understood in both languages. Still, Zoë’s communication skills are in general more advanced. Her language is more expressive: she seems to use more attributes than Max, there is definitely more modality in her utterances than his. For example, in Swedish she would use initial adverbs, like “egentligen” (actually), or “faktiskt” (in fact). Her Russian vocabulary is richer than that of Max and contains more colloquial phrases than Max’s, where more neutral expressions prevail.
On the other hand, it is still typical for Max to take passionate interest in some subject and absorb the knowledge within the subject fast and in a most comprehensive manner. He does not let go of his newly acquired interest before he knows the subject through and through. Thus, at the age of four he knows all the continents and can point out on a World map an impressive number of countries, including Pakistan, Nepal, Canada, the USA, Russia, Sweden (of course!) to name just a few. Max recognises about 30 flags and can name all the English Premier League football teams. So, if Zoë’s sentences, her general communication skills are more advanced in both languages than Max’s, Max is more eloquent within certain subjects.
“I” is “I”, “you” are “you”, but “she” can be “he”. Both children use “I” in Swedish and Russian (“jag”/”я”) when they speak about themselves, but they occasionally confuse third-person pronouns in nominative and genitive cases hon/hennes, han/hans, она/её, он/его (she/her, he/his) when they speak about someone, even each other. Only at the age of four the confusion manifests itself less frequently.
In Russian, Max and Zoë still make mistakes in noun-adjective coordination, so they can use a noun in masculine with an adjective in feminine, and vice versa, for example “красивый картинка”. Such mistakes can be made once or twice a day. Max may still use pronouns and adjectives in feminine when speaking about himself, but he uses masculine as well. I echo his statement correctly without pointing out that a mistake has been made:
Max in the bathroom: “Я готова!” (“I am ready!” where “ready” has a feminine form.)
Mom: “Ты готов, сыночек? Иду!” (“Are you ready, honey? I’m on my way!” where “ready” has a masculine form.)
Reading and writing. Both children started to gradually learn Swedish letters, their written form and the sounds they denote, at around 3,5 years. As is always the case with symbols (flags and countries, emblems and football teams), Max took a greater interest in letters and sounds than Zoë. Martin bought a fun game that uses the principle of bingo, but instead of numbers there are letters. The game was fun, and before we knew it, Max knew all the letters in the Swedish alphabet. Zoë was not as good at the alphabet at this age, but her competitiveness helped to inspire her to join in the game.
As was mentioned above, I started to work full-time in September 2015. I was teaching four new courses for me at two places (a prestigious high school and a university) first time in Sweden, in three languages, and after a four-year break. This change in my professional life had a dramatic impact on my parenting routines. Martin took over most of the parenting and allowed me to focus on my work. The result – regretfully, I spent very little time with Max and Zoë from September 2015 to April 2016. I barely had my 5 hours of sleep every night, was working non-stop, planning, then working again. I missed a few family occasions, like Christmas, because I was distracted from all the festivities by a mountain of essays, and behind each and every essay I saw an anxious student who was eager to get the result as soon as possible, and I was determined to deliver! Thus, significantly less time was spent with the family.
This account of my professional changes is given here to show that I cannot take any credit for Max and Zoë’s knowledge of the Russian alphabet. Indeed, it was another game, a talking alphabet-poster and the children’s favourite cartoon character Чебурашка, /t∫ebur’a∫ka/, that did all the work for me. This poster had been hanging on the wall in their play area since they were two, and they would press the buttons once in a while. Between the ages of two and three, they were more interested in learning the words with the help of this game. But it was when Max and Zoë were about three years and ten months when they started using a different mode of the game which aimed at teaching children letters and sounds. There is also a test-mode, so I could hear the praise, like “Well done!”, “Excellent!” or “Correct!” every time the children pressed the correct button when asked to find a certain letter. That is how I got to know that my children, mainly Max, knew the Russian alphabet by heart before he turned four. I could hear all the praise sitting in the office which is adjacent to the play area. Again, Zoë was only moderately interested in letters, just to occasionally make Max company.
Before Max turned four, he started building words in, first Swedish, and then Russian with the help of magnetic letters. Sometimes he was creative and used both alphabets at the same time. Can you guess what is written in the picture to the left? “Ryssland” (Russia in Swedish), but the letters are all Russian. This word was written by Max with absolutely no help from us when he was three years and eleven months. It makes total sense! I used the picture as a puzzle for my Russian students.
He started writing the words himself at the same time. His letters could be of different sizes and written all over the page, but he was writing words as he was spelling them out loud! He went through a funny stage of denial when he refused to write his own name in Russian. He loved the three letters “MAX”. He knew that the same combination of letters in Russian sounded like /mah/, which he found amusing. He even knew that his name in Russian was “МАКС”. Still he did not allow me to write his name like that. He refused to see “K” and “C” as part of his name. This period lasted for about two months.
Max could sit with a pen in his hand for an hour spelling and writing down words in Russian and Swedish. He got obsessed, mesmerised by this process. It became increasingly difficult to have him start eating, since he would be sitting there spelling all the labels he could see on milk cartons and the like. There was no stopping him! As usual, Max went all in, 100% in his new passion! As soon as he turned four, he started reading. In Swedish (in February 2016) and in Russian (in February/March 2016). Zoë would try too, occasionally, but we never pushed her (or Max for that matter), and we never worked on the correctness of the signs, or their order. We were already impressed by the passion for knowledge.
Other languages. Both Max and Zoë are interested in other languages. They have already picked up a few words in English, like “girl”, “boy”, “love”, etc, greetings, and numerals from one to twenty. Just before they turned four, they showed interest in French and learnt to count from one to twenty in French. They are equally good at learning new words in English and French.
Thus, both Max and Zoë’s language development is definitely following the expected milestones at this age in Swedish and in Russian.