Reading is our passion
Reading is our passion

Here you can find curious stories about Max and Zoe’s language development.






“Тень” (Rus. “Shadow”)

July 2013, Max is 17 months

Max was on a swing in the park, he was 17 months old. I was pushing the swing. Max is always excited about the swing, and I love making him laugh by catching his feet, tickling him and making funny noises as I push the swing. Suddenly, Max stopped laughing and looked very preoccupied. He was staring at the ground seriously and intently. Then, after a minute or so, he said:
– Тётя! (Rus. “A woman!”)
Max had seen my shadow, and he was trying to figure out who that was! That was what gripped his attention! So, I tried to explain to him that what he saw was “тень” (shadow), and that everybody had one when in the sun. I was waving my hands, then his hands showing how it worked. Max was very impressed and even scared. He refused to get down and walk and insisted on staying with me, in my arms, for a while. It was very unusual to be sitting on a bench in the park with my little rocket, who kept repeating in a pensive manner: “Тень…” ([ten’]). That’s how Max first encountered a shadow.

“Alfons” (A Swedish cartoon about a boy named Alfons Åberg)

16th August 2013, Max and Zoe are 18 months

Max is getting a bit addicted to videos, although we only allow 30 min a day after breakfast for educational purposes, namely, their vocabulary development in Russian and Swedish. Still, Max tries his luck and begs for cartoons from time to time. He used to just say [ka:ka:] and point at the TV screen, but today he was shouting [wʌwɔ:ʃ] (Alfons) and pointing at the screen. He kept repeating [wʌwɔ:ʃ]! Zoe started to repeat the word as well, so the two of them now have a code word for cartoons. It is not only the Alfons Åberg cartoons that they are asking for, as, when I put on Baby Einstein Numbers in Russian after I heard them shouting [wʌwɔ:ʃ]!, they were equally happy and did not protest.

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“Ко мне!”/Come here

August 2013, Zoe is 18 months old

Zoe has recently been very attached to me after she was sick a couple of times with high fever. When she feels weak and unwell she likes to be in my arms as much as possible. She used to stretch her arms to me and say “Mommy!”, so that I pick her up. Nowadays, her new phrase is [kʌmi:]! I have two theories about its etymology. Theory one: it comes from the English “come here”. Zoe does hear this phrase from English-speaking adults in the park, at MyGym, or in her daycare (backup care solutions provided by Martin’s employer, Google Inc. – 15 days a year). I do prefer the second theory though: this phrase is her interpretation of my phrase that I use when talking to Max and Zoe “Иди ко мне” (Rus. “Come to me”). So, Zoe basically may be saying “ко мне” (Rus. “to me”), as “to me” for her means being with me, her mother.
Similarly, my own grandmother Polina told me a story about me when I was about 2 years old. We were living in a village which was very safe and everybody’s doors were always kept open, and all neighbours were friends. I loved our neighbour, a woman called Erna (Эрна) of my Granny’s age. She would always call me to come to visit them, and she’d give me some treats. She would call me “Светочка, иди к нам” (Rus. “Svetochka, come to us!”). When I saw her from our garden I would sometimes shout to her: “Тётя Элна! Я хочу к нам!” (Rus. “Auntie Erna, I want to us!”).
Thus, I tend to believe that Zoe also uses this Dative for of the pronoun Я (Rus. “I”) when she wants to be held by me.

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“Akta dig!/Берегись!”

September 2013, Zoe is 18 months old

Zoe is really into singing these days. She walks around singing one song after another, making up songs, and mixing all the songs that she knows in one. She sings at least two thirds of the time when she is awake. When she wakes up she starts singing straight away.

She only repeats a few words from the songs, like “akta dig”. Very often she imitates the articulation of the beginning and the end of some of the lines: she protrudes her lips or opens her mouth wide when we do so. What amazes me is that she changes her articulation depending on the language she is singing the same song in. If we sing the song about the snail who should “watch out!” in Swedish, Zoe’s articulation corresponds to the Swedish one, but if I start singing the same song in Russian, she switches to a different, Russian way of singing this song. “Akta dig” vs “Берегись”: more open [ʌ] and [eɪ] vs closed [e] and [i:]. It takes her a mere second to think and change her articulation. Sometimes Zoe blends the two languages, and [ʌtə dɪs’] can be heard instead of Swedish [ʌtə deɪ] or Russian [bejegɪs’].

Max has an obvious preference of “akta dig” over “берегись”. He only uses the former, although he shows an understanding that both words refer to the same concept. Once, we were driving to a play date while visiting Max and Zoe’s grandparents in Barnaul. I spotted a car to our right with a student driver and said to my father, who was driving: “Папа, ученик за рулем! Берегись” (Rus. “Dad, a student driver! Watch out!”). Max echoed: “Akta dig!”

At this age, in general, songs have become very important means of communication in our family. About two weeks after Zoe’s last visit to the daycare, which she only attended about 12-15 times per year, she started singing: [ɪə-ɪə-joʊ]. Over and over again she was singing it to a very familiar tune. That is how we guessed that in their daycare our kids were taught to sing the famous song about the old McDonald’s farm.

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August 2013, Max and Zoe are 18 months

Starting around 18 months, Max and Zoe like to link the words that they hear with specific objects that they have/have seen in specific places. For example, in Mountain View, we were keeping an inflatable turtle for the pool under Max’s bed. Whenever Max heard the word черепаха/sköldpadda (Rus./Swe. “turtle”) he would point in the direction of his room or bed and say [a:]. He showed this way his awareness of another object of the kind which was located in a specific place as if he was saying: “I have one of these under my bed!” (see the video below at 4min and 5 min)

When we were in Russia in September 2013, one sunny day when we were outdoors, we all of a sudden were surrounded by many lady-bugs. They were flying around us and even landing on us. One of them landed on Zoe’s hand, and we took this opportunity to speak about lady-bugs with Max and Zoe: what they look like, how they fly, etc. Another one landed on my and Martin’s hands.

In October we are already living in Stockholm. The weather is crispy, and it feels like autumn is about to give way to winter. There are no lady-bugs to be seen, of course. However, when we read about lady-bugs or see them in pictures, Max and Zoe inevitably point at their hands and then at our hands. They remember that day in Russia when lady-bugs landed on our hands and we were watching them. This associative thinking is typical for Max and Zoe at 18 months and after.

Another type of associations that they have is associating people with what they said, or words with people. For instance, we were visited by my good friend from university, Ksysha, in November 2013. She was there when Max and Zoe turned 21 months. One morning we were getting ready for exploring Stockholm together, when Max and Zoe found something fascinating and exclaimed “Wow!” (an exclamation that they had smuggled into Sweden from the USA). Ksyusha echoed their amazement with a Russian equivalent “Ух ты!” [ʊhti:]. Max and Zoe stared at her for a while as if processing and absorbing whatever she had just said. The expression was added to their vocabularies there and then. Moreover, whenever they said it or heard it said by me many months after this morning, they would always add: “Ksyusha!” They remembered that she said it first, and they never failed to remind me of that.

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October 2013, Max is 20 months

Our family are travelling a lot. At 20 months, our kids have been on 23 flights. No wonder, that planes have become an important part of their existence. Max is particularly obsessed with planes. He spots them in the sky even if they are nothing but a tiny dot far, far away. He sees them everywhere: on posters, in books, and on TV. Every time he sees one he is the happiest boy on Earth. He points at them and shouts: [a:]! (under 20 months), or [tʊtu:/tɪtu:]! (when he turns 20 months; this is his made-up word for “plane”).

Having been on 23 flights together, we are particularly impressed by the service that we received flying SAS (Scandinavian Airlines): they give toys, books and sticker-books to their little passengers, and are, in general, very helpful and understanding towards parents with children. We have a lot of paraphernalia with SAS logo at home as a result. Max recognises this logo everywhere and screams excitedly: [jʌs]! (SAS).

Aren’t SAS clever! They have loyal customers as young as 19-20-month-old!

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“Мама, попа!” (Rus. “Mommy, booty!”)

October 2013, Max and Zoe are 20 months

“Попа” (Rus. “booty”, slang. for “buttocks”) becomes a very versatile word for Max and Zoe. It means:
a noun – the actual part of the body
a command – an invitation to sit down, as in “Мама, попа!” (Rus.”Mommy, booty!” for “Mommy, sit down!”)
an adverb describing that someone is sitting on the booty, as in “Миша попа” (Rus. “Bear booty” for “The bear is sitting on the booty”)
a verb that denotes going down the stairs on one’s booty, as in “Зоя попа!” (Rus. “Zoe booty!” for “Zoe is going down the stairs on her booty!”)
The children are creative with their limited vocabularies. They convert the same word into different parts of speech and achieve a variety of conversational goals.

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“Дядя Мэтт” (Rus. “Uncle Matt”)

November 2013, Max and Zoe are 21 months

Matt Bellamy
Matt Bellamy

I try to expose Max and Zoe to all genres of music that I myself like. Ever since they were in my belly, they have been listening to classical music, rock, alternative, jazz, occasionally, pop, and music for relaxation and meditation. When they were born they were open to different musical genres, but preferred music specifically designed for their little ears – children’s music. They love watching me playing the piano, and playing the piano themselves.

From about 13 months they would start dancing when they heard rock music. My most favourite rock band is “Muse”. For me, the soloist, Matt Ballamy, is a paragon of a talented musician and singer: a unique composer, and outstanding pianist, with a powerful easily recognisable voice, who writes beautiful lyrics, often raises topical issues in his lyrics, and who does not promote himself through scandals and other types of questionable PR. Not surprisingly then that Max and Zoe hear a lot of Muse. I also play their songs on the piano and sing myself (very few of them as I, unlike Matt Bellamy, am a very poor pianist who is re-discovering the piano after a 10-year break). My dream is to inspire my children to play musical instruments by playing myself and showing other people play, like Matthew. So, occasionally I find a video where Matt has a good piano solo, and I tell Max and Zoe: “Смотрите, как дядя Мэтт играет красиво! Какие ловкие у него пальцы! Вот какой молодец дядя Мэтт!” and the like (Rus. “Look, how beautifully uncle Matt is playing! His fingers are so skillful! What a great job he is doing!”).

Max and Zoe could watch concerts for hours, but we only show a bit now and again. That is how they know such words as “концерт” (Rus. “concert”) and “дядя Мэтт” (Rus. “uncle Matt”). Max even recognises Muse music when we listen to the radio, which, no doubt, makes his mother very happy. Occasionally, both of them demand: “Концерт! Концерт! Дядя Мэтт!” (Rus. “Concert! Concert! Uncle Matt!”). And we might satisfy their wish with a song or two played on YouTube.

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“Мама любимая!” (Rus. “Beloved Mommy!”)

December 2013, Zoe is 22 months

Is there anything else that the parent would like to hear from the child more than “I love you!” or something of similar meaning and intensity? We seek proofs that we are loved back in every smile, every hug, every kiss, and every word.

I ask our children all the time: “Максик/Зоенька, ты любишь маму/папу?” (Rus. “Do you love Mommy/Daddy?” A bit desperate though it is, I just cannot help it. Sometimes Max and Zoe reply with a kiss, sometimes they just say “Да!” (Rus. “Yes”), sometimes they say “No/Nej/Нет”, in which case I say to myself that, of course, they don’t mean it. It is just because they are busy-busy and in no cuddly mood at the moment. They know that should they say “Yes” a bear-hug will follow, as well as a shower of kisses, so this “no” can just be a way to avoid this motherly/fatherly love attack.

On New Year’s Eve, however, Zoe and I were cuddling on the sofa and talking, when, overwhelmed with love, I said “Доченька любимая!” (Rus. “Beloved/Darling daughter!”). My heart melted when Zoe replied: “Мама любимая!” (Rus. ” Beloved/Darling Mommy!”). And I saw it in her eyes that she meant it.

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“Mamma kan inte!” (Swe. “Mommy cannot!”)

August 2014, Zoe and Max are 2 years and 6 months

We have a tradition: every night, after Max and Zoë drink their bottle of välling (Swe. “formula”), brush their teeth and get into their pyjamas and into the beds, we switch off the light and sing two lullabies in Russian and two in Swedish. This is a tradition that goes back to when our children were sleep-trained at the age of nine months. Before then we would sing and sing until they both fell asleep, but ever since they learnt how to fall asleep on their own, it has always been four-five lullabies in total followed by good-night hugs and kisses, and thank-you-for-the-days.

The children liked singing along with us, Martin sang along in Russian and I sang along in Swedish. And then, one day, something bizarre happened. I do not remember who was the first to say that, but one of the children said to Martin when he was singing a Russian song with us: “Pappa kan inte!” (Swe. “Daddy cannot!”). Oh, did both Max and Zoë love it! They repeated again and again “Pappa kan inte!”. They were giggling. The same happened when I started singing along in Swedish: “Mamma kan inte!” “Мама не может!” What?! Were our children criticising us already? Did they react to our imperfect pronunciation, mine in Swedish and Martin’s in Russian? Was it the time they truly realised that my Swedish and Martin’s Russian were not perfect?

At first we found it cute: our children feel they know more than we do, they hear our imperfect pronunciations. After about the third night when this behaviour persisted, we started feeling increasingly annoyed. “Pappa sjunger så bra han kan!” (Swe. “Daddy sings as well as he can!”) – Martin would remark feeling somewhat hurt. It took about a month before the whole situation lost its novelty and fun factor, so Max and Zoë stopped teasing us, and the singing continued as before our children realised that their Mom and Dad were not flawless.

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Zoë and grandfather Vladimir, July 2015
Zoë and grandfather Vladimir, July 2015

“Я с Максиком разговариваю, дедушка!” (Rus. “I am talking to Max, granddad!”)

July 2015, Zoe and Max are 3 years and 5 months

Zoë and Max were staying at their grandparents’ in Barnaul between 17th and 22nd July 2015. The first time out of (hopefully) many when they were surrounded exclusively by Russian. Before my and Martin’s departure, everyone involved experienced a mild anxiety: how will it go? How willing will Max and Zoë be to speak only Russian to their Russian grandmother and grandfather?

One day, the children were sitting in the kitchen, playing and talking to each other. In Swedish. The grandfather, who occasionally gets particularly overwhelmed by this whole multilingual business and lets pessimism about the kids’ progress in Russian win over common sense, remarked: “Зоенька, говори, пожалуйста, по-русски. Я не понимаю, о чём ты говоришь.” (Rus. “Zoë, please speak Russian. I don’t understand what you are talking about.”) Zoë’s answer left him speechless: “Дедушка, но я с Максиком разговариваю!” (Rus. “But I am talking to Max, granddad!”)

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