Tuesday, September 25, 2012

It's been a long time!

I haven't been posting on this blog for about a year and a half, and a lot of changes happened since then. Sasha speaks both English and Russian more fluently now. And his current "deal" is a lot of pretend play. He is going to be 3 in something like 40 days, and at this point, his Russian sentences became more complex. He uses structures with words because, so that and which. Our efforts to keep TV time to a minimum continue. We allow occasional cartoons. 95% of cartoons he watches are in Russian, with just a couple of English language cartoons ("Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" and "Sid the Science Kid"). 

Maintaining Russian play dates for him proved to be very difficult, in part because every family has a different approach to raising their child bilingual. Some families speak only one language with a child, and it is English. Some families utilize a lot of English media. Some families encounter some challenges (for example, speech delay or lack of second language services) and give up. 

Truthfully, even with our achievements so far, it's not that easy to maintain both languages at the same level. One always falls behind. When we travel to Russia (which we did this summer and last summer), Sasha's Russian gets significantly better than his English. When we spend more time with Sasha's American grandparents or if we attend a lot of classes, then his English gets better. 

I think the most important thing in raising a bilingual child is being consistent and providing quality time and quality media in both languages. Of course, that's not easy. Even if you are trying to raise a child with English-Spanish in America, there are significantly less Spanish language media at your local library than those in English. There are less opportunities to use the second language and to learn anything new in second language. There are less people in your community that speak the second language that you are trying to teach your child.

So, in the future posts, I will try to highlight some of the stuff that we did to encourage language development in our son and some of the questions that my acquaintances posed that have something to do with speech.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Language joggling

Well, the summer is almost over, and we have been keeping busy for the last couple of months. There was a lot to do at Denver Public Libraries in June (clowns, balloon ladies, trained pigs - you name it), and in July we took Sasha on his first trip to Russia.

The timeliness of this trip was amazing. As described by multitudes of authors, 18-24 months are commonly characterized by a rapid growth in child's vocabulary. At this point, a child is using as many as 50 words in his speech, mostly nouns. This is also time to be vigilant about your child's language development. If he or she does not use any words, now is a perfect time to get a referral to a speech therapist. The earlier the better. I have seen on my friend's example that starting therapy in a timely manner gives great results. If your child drops most consonants, he might have a hearing problem. So, ears should be checked out again in such case.

In either situation, dropping the second language as a solution to speech delay might be a mistake. According to Barbara Zurer-Pearson, there is no study that either confirms or denies that switching from bilinguism to monolinguism is a likely solution to speech delay. In fact, speech therapy that gives results in one language can also imrove child's second language skills.

While in Russia, Sasha picked up a whole bunch of new words, and now he also uses three-syllable words, which he couldn't do before. He is eager to copy patterns of speech, although mostly he repeats last words in conversations he hears. Another thing Sasha started doing is singing. He can only sing one word from Russian songs that he learned (total of two), but it's a start.

We are back home, safe and sound. And yesterday, we noticed that Sasha chooses between his languages depending on whom he is talking to. Before (and during) our trip to Russia, he only had one word per concept in his vocabulary. Now, he actually switches languages when he talks. Yesterday's situation was in the kitchen, and he was demanding: "Food! Food!", because he got hungry. With me during the day, he uses the word: "Кушать!" (to eat). Or he might request a specific thing in Russian - банан, кашку, or яблоко (banana, porridge, or apple accordingly). But yesterday evening, Greg was home, and so Sasha chose English: "Food! Food! Grapes!"There are still plenty of words that he uses exclusively without switching languages: bus, ball, cheese,walk, ягода (berries), буква А (letter A), облака (clouds).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Interpreter at your disposal

If I ever lose my ability to speak English, I know I am in good hands with Sasha, because he will just translate it for me.

For the past month - month and a half, Sasha has been extending his greetings not to just people who visit us, but to anyone within a couple of feet from him. People on the elevator, in the grocery store, on the bus, etc. If he is really in the mood for it, he will even waive and greet people across the street, as I am pushing him in the stroller. Now, he is also willing to greet others on my cue. If I ask him in Russian: "Скажи им привет-привет!" ("Say hi-hi to them!"), he smiles, waves and says: "Hi!" Please note that my request was in Russian and he translates it into English.

He does it with some other words, too. If he hears me using the word мультики (cartoons), he gets really excited and keeps repeating: "Cah-too! Cah-too!", full of anticipation.

I decided to use this new trait for some fun and taught him that his Hawaiian t-shirt with the silhouette of the islands, as well as the abbreviation used for 50th state, says привет! And he happily started repeating hi, which is exactly what it says on the shirt. So, now if I ask him: "Что у тебя на рубашке написано?" ("What does your shirt say?"), he responds: "Hi!" right away. In other words, he can read! Just kidding...

Friday, April 15, 2011

There is a bunch of kakas on our tree

We have a tree just outside our windows, and it is a home to squirrels, sparrows, woodpeckers, and so on. Sasha enjoys keeping track of them. And every so often, he is sitting in his high chair and saying: "Kaka! Uh-oh!"

First, I thought that he pooped, because kaka is a Russian word for poop. But you will be surprised that this is Sasha's word for any kind of birds he sees.

The explanation for this is plain simple. Last fall, I used to take him to Cheeseman Park for a stroll and also for swinging. In Cheeseman Park, there are many crows, and so I taught Sasha that the crow (in Russian - ворона) says: "Karrr! Karrr!" ( I understand that it says: "Caw! Caw!" in English, but you will be surprised how different the sounds of animals are from one language to another). It took him 2-3 months to connect the dots, and it wasn't until January of this year when, upon arriving to Cheeseman Park, he started saying: "Ka! Ka!" as imitation of crow's cry. (Sasha cannot roll his Rs, yet. It takes Russian children years before they can.)

Now, since we moved to our new apartment with a tree outside our window, I realized that he quickly learned to generalize, and he is now using crow's cry to name any bird he sees. 

This is typical for his age. According to Barbara Zurer-Pearson, as well as to Dr. Harvey Karp (check out his book "The happiest toddler on the block"), between one and two years of age, toddlers ascribe multiple meanings to the same form (form is sounded word or a sentence, or a sign). Sasha does the same with ASL sign "more". While most of the time he uses it to ask for more of whatever, now and then, he uses it to ask to read a book. This is how he originally learned the sign. He would cry because a book would be over, and Greg would teach him to use the sign to ask for more. There are occasions when he brings us a random book and signs: "More!", meaning: "Read this book!"

Either way, Sasha's use of the word kaka creates a lot of confusion for his parents, because he has been known to use it in context of going on the potty, and now there is "Kaka! Uh-oh!". My translation for that is: "Birds! Where are the birds? They are gone! Birds fell down!"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A possibility of Russian immersion in Denver

I have recently contacted a charter school in SE Denver / Glendale area which offers a German immersion for elementary students. I posed a question: Why just German? And why not Russian? Their location is in the midst of a Russian-Jewish / Russian-Central Asian community with stores, cultural centers and restaurants directed at Russian speaking customers. Why not Russian immersion?

To my surprise, the director of the school (World Wide Academy, Laura Smallwood) responded with eager interest on the subject. She says it is a possibility, and the center she is working closely with would be interested in starting a Russian immersion as soon as next school year. What it comes down to is how many parents would be actually interested in something like that. So, at this point I am volunteering to promote the possibility of the program.

If you know a family that would be interested in placing their child into a Russian immersion program in Denver, please forward them this information:

Worldwide Academy
2829 N Fairfax Street
Denver, CO 80207

Ms. Laura Smallwood

They are welcome to write an email to Laura in order to express their interest: laura8sule@msn.com

Dear Laura:

I am a parent of a ... year old child, and I am interested in placing my child into a school that would offer a partial or a full immersion in Russian language. If World Wide Academy would start such a program, we intend to apply for admission starting with the school year ... . Please feel free to contact me at ... (phone number) or via email: ....


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

New happenings

It's been over a month since my last post. There is a whole bunch of excuses for that: we moved, I got a small irregular job, we have been having visitors and small get-togethers at our new place, and most importantly - the weather is getting better.

In the meantime, Sasha is learning new words in both English and Russian. His favorite English words are Hi! and fish, and in Russian he says каша, нет and he has been caught saying купаться. Of course, most of his communication is still signs, grunts, points, cries etc. The most identifiable signs are "more" (the classic ASL sign) and "play some music" (by swinging with whole upper body from left to right with hands in the air). However, I have also noticed that he sometimes talks and talks in long sequences of syllables, but I just have no idea what he says. For example, a couple of days ago in the car, he was repeating the same long utterance over and over, and the intonation sounded like it was either a question or a request, but I don't know what he said. It's very amusing.

In the last couple of weeks, I have been trying to teach Sasha to draw shapes. He easily identifies shapes. We have a green 3D triangle, a blue rectangle, a red square (it's actually a cube, but for the purpose of learning I call it a square), and a yellow circle (a cylinder). So, when I draw a circle, I use yellow color, etc., and it makes it easier to compare the drawing to the object, because we can identify it by color and by shape. Sasha easily finds the right object when he sees me drawing it. And if I ask: "Where is the triangle?" - He picks out the right object. Except that sometimes he confuses the triangle with the rectangle, because they sound similar. Still, it's a start. At the end, I always offer Sasha a crayon, so that he can draw a shape. So far, he has been drawing things that cannot be identified as a particular geometrical shape, but the goal is that he draws something instead of just scribbling lines across the page.

I see this exercise helpful not just for drawing, but also for language skills. Ultimately, the interaction between us, as well as naming and finding the right object is a language exercise. Every time an adult names an object for a child, he separates that object from the surrounding world of chaos. So, naming and finding is a great skill.

Last weekend, we had visitors from Germany and one of them were drawing fish for Sasha. I also drew one or two and went to take a shower. When I came back, our German friend informed me that Sasha drew a fish. The was a giant shape on top of all other fish drawings that absolutely looks like fish (it does not have eyes or scales, or fins, but it's a giant fish). So, officially the first thing he has ever drawn is fish. Both of his grandpas will be proud.

I will try to pace myself through all the other stories, such as explaining why Sasha calls birds kaka. So, watch for new posts soon.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dr. Seuss in Russian

I have heard from a friend of mine today who lives in Kansas City, MO, and is raising two toddlers. She is trying to raise her kids with Russian and English, but finds it difficult to find Russian literature at reasonable prices. Her son and daughter love Dr. Seuss books (and so does Sasha), and she tries to read those to them in Russian. And, of course, when someone translates on a fly, it's difficult to convey the message while preserving the structure of a poem. Her new find is these Russian poetic translations of Dr. Seuss famous "Cat in the hat", "Horton hears a who", "Horton hatches an egg", and a couple more.

They are published on a Russian poetry page where anyone can publish their poetry. In fact, here is another collection which belongs to a close friend of mine from college: http://www.stihi.ru/avtor/radavilova . Although, all her poetry is in Russian.

Thank you, Olesya, for the link to Dr. Seuss poetry translations. I hope others will also find these helpful.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fight Alzheimer's with bilingualism

If you weren't yet convinced (still?!) that being bilingual has tons of benefits, consider this: A new research by Canadian neurologists indicates that speaking multiple languages throughout your life helps delay onset of symptoms of dementia.

According to this new study, bilingual individuals were diagnosed with Alzheimer's almost 5 years later than monolinguals. And this cannot be contributed to better education, because in many cases the bilinguals actually had lower level of education, as they immigrated to Canada from other countries.

The researchers explain this phenomenon through the idea that bilingualism requires rapid "code switching" (in other words, you have to quickly go back and forth between two languages in your daily life), which is just another form of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking, as many other brain activities, helps stimulate the brain, thus prolonging its active life.

And one more time, it turns out that our brain is not confused by it, but, on the contrary, gets its exercise from bilingualism.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sasha signs

So, I am wondering if we need to start a sign language vocabulary page for Sasha, as yesterday he has successfully used his first sign in a context. Greg was reading him books, one after another, and Sasha was signing "more" in between. There was no other interpretation for his sign, because he was actually complaining if you put him down and insisting on more by putting his fingertips together.

Truthfully, we did not teach Sasha sign language early on, when it would be helpful. Apparently, you can teach your baby to sign as early as at 3 months! The benefits are obvious - your child will communicate before he can speak. In our situation, we don't use sign language consistently, and the only signs Sasha uses so far is the pointing sign and "more".

For those who wonder whether communicating with signs diminishes child's ability to learn a spoken language, here is my linguistic opinion: No, it does not. A sign language (whether it is American Sign Language or British Sign Language or French Sign Language) is a language in it's own right. Different sign languages develop independently from each other and if you can sign in ASL, you cannot communicate with a Russian person who speaks Russian sign language. These languages have their own grammar, their own vocabulary and their own form. They also change with time.

So, if you are teaching your baby to sign, you are raising her in a bilingual environment. She might not be bilingual later on, but you are building the foundation to bilingualism with sign language.

Interestingly enough, ASL is widely used in speech therapy in America. I wonder if anybody has ever considered using a spoken language for speech therapy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

That's it!

My son is reaching that stage of development that docs call "the terrible twos", a period of testing the boundaries and mama's patience, the period of defiance and opposites. How do I know?

Imagine Sasha standing by the bookshelf, removing the books, one by one, and throwing them on the floor into a porridge of toys, water bottles, hand towels, etc. I am standing in the kitchen and raising my voice: "Саша! Нельзя! Нельзя, я сказала!" (Sasha! You may not! You may not, I said!), to which he replies: "Зя!" (Yes, I may!). And so we continue yelling back and forth: "Нельзя!" - "Зя!" - "Нельзя!" - "Зя!"

For those readers who grew up in the same cultural realm as I did, the humor is obvious, but for those American readers of mine, here is the video from the '80s that sums it all up:

These wonderful actors were part of the comedy group Лицедеи (Lizedeyi). This skit is absolutely applicable to all parent-child situations where the child rebels. Exactly my conversation with Sasha this morning.

Needless to say, there is no word зя in Russian language. Нельзя is a remnant of the old system, probably Old-Slavonic. The opposite of нельзя is можно (may). It's impossible to say не можно. One may either say нельзя or можно. But Sasha does not know the word можно (because he never asks me if he may do something, he just does it, and then I say that he may not). Instead, he figured out that не stands for not, and he creatively subtracted it from нельзя, while adding a new unit to his vocabulary - зя.