For parents of bilingual children

Reading and vocabulary building

I am reading a bedtime story in Russian to the kids. They are interested, they are following, they seem to understand. And, all of a sudden, my eight-year-old fluent Russian-English bilingual asks, in Russian, “Что значит ‘материя’?” (“What does ‘fabric’ mean?”). This happens a couple more times while I am reading. Some of the words she does not know may also be new to children of her age in Russia. As for other of those words, kids in Russia would be surprised to learn that someone their age does not know such words. This is normal. And this is why I keep reading in Russian to my kids, and insist that they should read in Russian on their own.

This also happens during reading in English. This is normal. And this is why reading is English is necessary too.

We master the sounds and the grammar of our language in the first few years of life, but we keep learning new words throughout our childhood and even throughout our whole life. I recently added a few dozens of new words to my mental lexicon when I started learning to sail.  New words are learned with new experiences, with new concepts. Bilingual children tend to have smaller vocabularies in each language than monolingual children. This is because they divide their time between languages. They have different experiences in each language. They might know, for example, science terminology only in English, but names of the plants in their backyard, only in Russian.

But whatever experience they have, books have an enormous potential to expand it. Books contain a lot of words that we rarely use in everyday life – and yet a lot of them are words that every educated speaker knows. The more limited the child’s experience with a language, the more important it is to read books in that language.

Receptive bilinguals: Myth and reality

You might have seen such a picture: a mother speaks to her child in Russian (or whatever heritage language), and the child answers in English. The simple definition of receptive bilinguals is “people who understand but do not speak”. This is reality for quite a large number of heritage speakers. After testing Labrador Inuktitut receptive bilinguals, I can say that there are two myths about them. One, that they understand everything. The other, that they cannot speak the heritage language at all.

There is definitely a huge difference between their speaking and listening abilities. But even in listening, they miss some parts. Of course, they encounter unfamiliar words, but they also have problems with grammar. They might not be able to get the difference between sentences like The boy is pushing a girl and The boy is being pushed by a girl, even if they know all the words. Fluent speakers might not be able to explain the difference, but they imagine the right pictures when hearing these sentences. Without our implicit grammatical knowledge, we wouldn’t know how words in a sentence relate to each other, and be left to guess, unless our knowledge of the world helps us.  Receptive bilinguals still have at least the most basic grammatical knowledge, but some pieces are completely missing, and for others, they have trouble connecting, for example, a suffix and what it is used for. Because of that, it is difficult for them to build a sentence when they are speaking – they, for example, know that the verb needs an ending but cannot remember which ending; in languages that have cases, they may not know what case suffix a noun needs, and so on. If they try to speak, their speech may be very slow, they may make errors, and may give up and switch to English. That’s why they avoid speaking in the heritage language, but it’s not true that they cannot speak at all.



Can a child be fluent in a heritage language?

For starters, I will explain this common term – HERITAGE LANGUAGE. In Canada, it is usually used to refer to immigrant languages, highlighting that these are languages spoken mainly among family members – in contrast to official languages that are used everywhere. A HERITAGE SPEAKER in Canada is someone who grows up hearing a heritage language from parents and English from other people. Naturally, they spend more time speaking English than the heritage language, at least since they start school. And it often happens that they speak heritage language not so well. In scientific literature, the term HERITAGE SPEAKER usually implies incomplete knowledge of a heritage language. People who are fluent in a heritage language are simply called fluent bilinguals. I’m not quite happy about this term (though I use it) because it is not fair to these fluent speakers of a heritage language.
I’ve seen a lot of variation in children’s and adults’ skills in their heritage language, from full or near-full fluency to complete forgetting and everything in between. And the majority is in between. Learning one language in childhood is effortless. What about learning two? Some parents take it for granted that their children’s Russian doesn’t sound quite like Russian. On the other hand, I met so many Russian-Canadian parents who are more optimistic, who want their children to speak Russian well, and who make efforts to achieve this. So who is right?
It’s obvious that achieving full fluency in a heritage language is not easy. The problem is not bilingualism by itself. Children can learn two languages. The problem is that heritage speakers are at risk of not getting enough exposure to the heritage language. This usually includes lack of schooling in the heritage language. For some parts of language knowledge, it’s not a big problem; for others, it is.
People whose kids don’t have enough, for example, sun exposure give them Vitamin D. So parents who want their child to speak the heritage language well also need to give something extra to their children. I remain optimistic, especially when hearing my kids’ and some of their friends’ fluent Russian. They make occasional errors, but they know how to say it right; these are more like slips of the tongue. They don’t know some rare words that they encounter in Russian books – but, hey, we keep learning new words throughout all our lives. I believe the answer is YES. But that Vitamin D for heritage language is a very complex concoction, and figuring out its recipe is quite a journey.

Participants needed!

I am looking for 6-7 year old Russian-English bilingual children residing in Toronto or Ottawa for participation in a study. Each child is tested individually in both languages through games and story books, during one 30-40 minute visit, and receives a gift. Contact me at