One year of doing Russian/English OPOL in Ukraine

Starting this post I found myself in a bit unsure position. On the one hand the audience is Russian-speaking and I clearly should address you in a conventional way. On the other hand we all should practice English more and, oddly enough, when writing about my experience of raising my son in English, I`m experiencing a weird awkwardness in my native tongue. So despite of possible flaws, let`s begin.

In the beginning

In March or April of 2011, about the time my son was getting 2 years old, I started talking to him in English. At first he used to give me a perplexed look as he obviously lacking any understanding of what was said and why it was said in an abnormal manner. The first words I told to my son were simple commands to switch on or off the light, to bring the towel or to go to the bathroom. My voice sounded strange even to myself. Speaking to your own child in a foreign language isn`t what parents do instinctively. Frankly, it was quite odd at the beginning and it sounded even more unnatural in the company of others. But in fact almost nobody really cared or even paid any attention to my foreign utterances.

So without delays or preparations I began to talk to my son in English. I talked around, explaining everything I was doing near the baby. I used to introduce as simple words as possible (“hi”, “ca(r)”, “mo(re)”, “eye”, “ea(r)”, “no”, “yea(h)”, “bye”), one-syllable words without consonant ending. If the word was too hard to pronounce, I simplified it (“wanna” instead of “want”). The next step were the flash cards with different animals; soon enough, being asked in English he could correctly point the card. Later I introduced other flashcards, books, and most importantly animated cartoons in English. With the help of TV programs my son could learn two or three words every day. I frequently asked him to name something, primarily surrounding things or parts of his body, later actions, colors, shapes. By the age of 29 months he could count from 1 to 14, tried to sing "Twinkle, twinkle little star", could produce about 340 words, and could point correctly the letters “W” and “O”. He started using “-s” to mark plural, and auxiliary verb “to have”. English equivalents even supplanted a few first Russian words he had used extensively for about a year (“paci”, “peecaboo”). He used only Simple Present and Present Continuous at that point.

As my son is approaching to the age of 3, his language skills become stronger. I abandoned counting the number of words he understood and used, but I think his passive vocabulary is about 900 or 1000. The rapid growth of his vocabulary has slowed down due to the limited amount of words he hears from me and cartoons. I hope to improve it with more reading. Especially after he will start reading himself.

My background

By that time I had a much experience of learning and using English at a specialized school (though I had some time with a private tutor who was a Ukrainian reemigrant from Australia) and university where I memorized a dictionary of 10.000 words (with about 80-90% success). I could read and translate technical and academic texts, I got straight “A”, passed all exams and still I neither spoke nor understood spoken English. Nowadays it is commonplace to scold the Soviet system of education, especially the way how English was taught. But in fact this system was adequate to its purposes and means. People from the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries speak good English because they are exposed to it from very young age through unrevoiced (only dubbed) movies and TV shows. At the same time learners of foreign languages from the English-speaking world experience the same kind of problems with their second languages as we do here in the former USSR. Why to bother yourself speaking in a second language if it is not vital or useful outside the schoolroom?

For the previous 5 years I used English in the workplace on daily basis. Prior to the start of the whole endeavour I was engrossed in a self-invented immersing program. I was listening to a variety of lectures, podcasts and audio books for about 6 months. At that point I realized what enormous time and effort I had invested in what was just a basic skill. Obviously it seemed be too cruel to push my son through the same torments. I felt pretty confident about the level of my English, and online tests confirmed that it was advanced. But speaking English to the child immediately revealed lack of knowledge of important basics, especially family/household vocabulary, verbs for simple actions, different subtle details and slang. Pronunciation was also very unnatural, excessively articulate to the point it sounded both arrogantly and silly like mocking of a British lord. The new practical needs have put me under certain stress and have urged to improve my language skills rapidly. Now I am well aware of, to put it mildly, imperfectness of my English, but I still believe that imperfect is better than none, and practice matters.

Pro and contra

Timing was the second most important consideration that has pushed me to start teaching English to my son. He was approaching the stage of language explosion. I wanted to use the window of opportunity to engrave English in his memory, to leave him an everlasting and wearproof tool for his own adulthood. It is said that from the age of two till seven the language abilities decline pretty rapidly. Later I learnt that in fact children were not better in memorizing foreign words or grammar rules. They are just better in pronunciation and what is absolutely crucial, they beat adults in motivation. Children are hardwired to acquire language and communicate with others. How can your child avoid his nice and comforful parent?

Besides, there were a few concerns. What would say my wife, inlaws, friend and colleagues? Is it right to do considering that our own language is endangered by the policies of government and local authorities? However, we managed to sort out all these matters. Our son is exposed to Russian through the family and nanny. Later on he will learn Ukrainian if we stay in this city and country.

Picking up fatherese

Generally fathers speak in more complicated way, entertain their kids more, and play more vigorously, then mothers. I used to watch documentaries and youtube videos to pick up bits of native “fatherese”. I lurked on parenting discussion forums, picking up new words and expressions here and there. And I read all available materials on child development, language acquisition, and early bilingualism. And, of course, my English is still far from being perfect.

As it`s now

Our daily routine consists of watching cartoons (lots of them) or kids programs in the morning and evening. I try to choose those adecuate to the age and level of my son. Often we watch them together and I comment, explain, observe reaction and ask for a response. Sometimes I read him books, and he gets more and more interested in this activity. Often he retains interest in reading during 20 and even 40 minutes, much longer then I do. Day and night, in any situation I speak to him only in English, even and especially if there is any kind of trouble, pain or danger. Sometimes I don`t switch to Russian even with my wife in order to prevent my son thinking about speaking English as some unserious or unworthy pretense.

He speaks English a lot, even too much. It used to concern my wife, but later she got accustomed. He is a chatterbox, mixing and creating words, using the word order he likes, paying no attention to formal grammar. Still, he uses English productively and his pronunciation doesn`t sound absolutely un-English (but I still hear the difference with the native one). He speaks English to everyone whom he knows more then 5 minutes (though starts in Russian), when he plays and even cries at night.

I do not have any certain plans. Probably I`ll try to teach him to read during the next year. Let it go as it goes and everything will be fine.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

Frankly speaking, at first I hesitated about the choice of language for my comment. But let it be English as the post is in English. Moreover, the conversation might be interesting for foreign visitors who don't speak any Russian.

Your experience is certainly noteworthy and unusual as you started at the mature age of two and still succeeded. It takes certain boldness to address your son in English in any situation living in a non-English speaking country, which I can't but respect.

Being very much interested in your experience, I have a number of questions to ask you. When my daughter turned three I began to feel that just speaking/listening/watching wasn't enough any more; I had to think of some games as well as classes embracing different themes. Isn't it the same with your son? And one more question: do you have such periods when your son evidently prefers Russian cartoons, songs, books etc. and do you do anything about it?

Юрий аватар

I keep looking for other people who teach English to their kids. Perhaps, we could have a playgroup in English. Later on I will send him to English language camps.

Of course, classes and especially games are a very good idea. My son likes to play with me, obviously he needs it more then I able and willing to offer him. Reading books aloud is very important too. I feel I let him watch cartoons too often and too much.

Basically, he watched a lot only one series of Russian cartoons ("Masha and Bear"). Sometimes he asks for it, but he never insists on watching anything specific, so I can easily distract him with another series. So far he is very clearly inclined to watch/listen in English (but he may get bored if the speech is too rapid and unclear). Once he wanted me to read out the Russian fairy tale about Masha, and I translated it in English. So, basically, my method is to offer him more powerful entertainment, to provide more "boy tailored" new concepts (vehicles, technology, military etc), to offer something slightly ahead of his current stage of development, and to be consistent and strict with OPOL. It may work till we live in a sort of a bubble, before he starts attending daycare or kindergarten. Interaction with other children may shift the balance very considerably.

admin Olga-ekb аватар

I've made use of such tricks as "reading" a Russian book in English. Happy And I believe they work until a certain age. For my daughter they stopped working after 3,5 years old. Now she clearly distinguishes between the two languages and is very specific about what language she prefers at the moment. When she wants to watch her favourite cartoons in Russian, there isn't anything I can do any more. So I just let her decide.

Your words about "a bubble" ring familiar to me though ours has already started to pop. It is taking more and more ingenuity to stimulate her progress in English. It is quite a challenge! But I can't say that I don't enjoy the period.