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Entries Tagged as 'Ask Olga!'

Ask Olga! Helping Children Store Up Languages

November 8th, 2019 · 3 Comments

Children of multilingual families rarely choose what languages they will learn. They receive and accumulate what is given them by the family and the outside world. However, once children begin to develop their linguistic competencies, they are compelled to make choices each and every time they use language. Just think of the complexity of these choices and the amazing capacity and flexibility of young multilingual minds!

“How did it happen that you speak three languages?” I ask my granddaughter Michelle as we sit on the porch outside her home near London. A seemingly simple question suddenly poses a challenge to a six-year-old. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe when my Mama had me in her belly she spoke three languages . . .” It takes her a few seconds to reconsider, and then a more logical (from our perspective) answer emerges: “Oh, I know, I speak Russian with Mama and French with Papa. And my preschool teacher taught me English.”

It seems that for Michelle and her younger brother Maxim, each linguistic choice, each transition from one language to another, happens seamlessly and naturally. Russian is part of Mama’s personality and her family, and French is part of Papa and his family. English has a strong presence everywhere. It is useful to think of these languages not as separate domains but as a combined multilingual resource. Children learn to use this resource through experimenting with it, mixing the language ingredients, and learning the best ways to convey meaning. We are lucky to be involved in this process, but we also bear the responsibility for enriching the language they store.

My grandchildren’s language acquisition has involved some innovative choices, some unexpected side trips, and many funny moments. Both Michelle and Maxim continue to experiment with grammatical intricacies, word choices and phonology based on language that they have received. With the start of their school in the UK, the share of English language during the day has increased. Therefore, it is now especially important that their family continues to provide motivation and support for learning home languages and literacy.

Sometimes parents are concerned that the use of home languages might compromise learning in the language of instruction at school. However, research, experience and common sense suggest that using the potential of all linguistic resources available to multilingual children is beneficial for their cognitive, social and emotional development, and ultimately for their success in the global community.

Members of multilingual families can turn many moments into opportunities to build proficiency in home languages. These opportunities sometimes get lost in the ocean of chores and daily routines, engagement with gadgets, and the “I’ll do it on the weekend” mentality. We must keep in mind that lost opportunities accumulated over time require a lot of catching up later.

How can we parents and grandparents help children “store up” language?

  • Look at the schedule and make a list of language enrichment possibilities within our reach.
  • Use our native languages with the children consistently, making them always a part of the linguistic landscape.
  • Seek out new sources of language input: friends, activities, online sessions and/or lessons—these are becoming quite popular as distance learning. Adult friends, cartoons, movies and books are also great. The world is multilingual—there are opportunities to meet same-language groups everywhere!
  • Make good strategic use of our extended family: relatives and important others who are dedicated to educating children and happy to watch them grow. Michelle has begun serving as my Russian-language narrator for home movies filmed in French. Maxim is beginning to add his voice as well!

Our year has been full of family events—holidays, visiting cousins, and birthday parties. I remember a moment when children welcomed an invited birthday party star in London—a Spiderman. Michelle’s cousin Zoya was showing him her jump rope skills, which Michelle had not yet mastered. I could see Michelle’s intense expression until she seemed to have made a decision. She went closer to Spiderman and said seriously and proudly: “And I can speak three languages!” We hope our children will always feel proud of their linguistic accomplishments! If our children and grandchildren value their ability to speak more than one language, then that’s the best reward for our efforts.

Columnist Olga Steklova is a retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself. She shares tips for raising multilingual children as she observes her own grandchildren. To read more columns, click on the Ask Olga! category below.

Tags: Ask Olga! · Mother tongue at home · Multilingualism

Ask Olga! Early Literacy in Three Languages

February 28th, 2019 · 1 Comment

A moment of precious time with our grandchildren: pencils and paper, puzzles and activity books, scissors and glue are scattered about the table. Michelle draws an object of her imagination: a special vacuum cleaner. She draws arrows and labels different parts of the device. Then she gives her drawing a title. She admires her work—the writing is a mix of Cyrillic and Latin scripts. She sometimes finds it easier to write words in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, with its near-perfect letter-sound correspondence.

Drawing labeled in both Cyrillic and Latin scripts.

Michelle is taking her first steps toward literacy. We tried hard to prepare her for these moments. She has been read to extensively, and she has been learning letters through various games and activities. She knows letters in three languages: Russian, French and English. She is beginning to read simple books in English at school and to write phonetically.

We have anticipated this stage, and now it’s exciting to watch how engaged and focused she is.

Along with excitement come worries.

Languages are written in different ways, sometimes with no similarities at all, and sometimes with similarities that confuse. Children must figure out how letters and signs of different scripts work together to form words and sentences in each language.

Should we encourage Michelle to read and write in all three languages at the same time? Should we wait and let her develop skills in the language of her educational setting, which is English, before attempting to introduce literacy skills in French and Russian?

Many parents have to answer these questions and address these worries. Research on this matter is not prescriptive; it does not supply a clear recommendation or a timeline for learning multiple literacies. What it does say, is that learning to read and write in one language will make it easier to learn to read and write in another, as many reading and writing skills are universal. Research also cautions against disregard for the child’s interest and motivation. Frustration in learning to read and write, which some children experience, might signal some general difficulties in learning, rather than the effect of multilingualism.

On the positive side, the simultaneous approach has great potential for broadening the learner’s perspective on literacy, making comparisons, analyzing more deeply the structural elements of each language, and understanding the purposes and cultural aspects of reading and writing.

Indeed, literacy in several languages can be the key to vast linguistic and cultural resources and the foundation of globally-minded learning. It gives access to diverse knowledge and worldviews.

Two months after labeling her vacuum cleaner, Michelle reads a book in English that she has brought home from school. She is “sounding out” letters and reading simple words on a page. Then she has an idea. “Mama, I will now read this book in Russian,” she says. “I will read the words quietly in my head, in English, and then say them in Russian.” And she does. 

Another day, Michelle creates a text, a recipe for her panda’s favorite soup. She announces the purpose of her writing clearly, in Russian, and then begins to write in English, saying the words slowly but recording with amazing fluency. 

Soup for a panda. Ingredients: two eggs, two bowls of flour, five sticks of bamboo, and one pot of milk and water.

And so, Michelle’s English literacy gains ground. We wait for an opportunity to infuse Russian and French. We know we need to proceed in ways appropriate for a five-year-old.  “The most common mistake people make is to ask for too much too soon.” I came upon this recommendation once for training cats—but somehow it fits perfectly within any learning context! So we are patient, and we take small steps. The same source notes, “If a behavior results in something the [learner] likes, she will do it again.”

As grandparents, we are now planning for our next visit with Michelle and her brother Maxim. Here are a few thoughts on our next steps to support their engagement with literacy.

  • Be ready with a few vocabulary games and activities. Reading can be a source of frustration when a text has too many unknown words.
  • Create short, engaging stories together, modelling writing.
  • Start a daily journal with the children.
  • Write cards and letters to family and friends.
  • Maintain a supply of books in their languages—books with simple text for independent reading, and books with more complex language for reading aloud to the children.
  • Collect stamps, postcards, labels and other objects with print in their languages.
  • Engage children in letter and word sorting games to differentiate different scripts—especially looking for letters that are “the same but different.”
  • Create name cards in multiple languages.
  • Have conversations about literacy.

Recommended reading:

Mother tongue: Why is it important for education?

Tags: Ask Olga! · Mother tongue at home

Ask Olga! What’s In an Accent?

October 31st, 2018 · No Comments

“We be of one blood, ye and I,” said Mowgli, quickly giving the Snake’s Call.

“Down hoods all,” said half a dozen low voices.

—Excerpt from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

My family has had a great summer and fall. So full of children and chatter, stories and fun! My granddaughter Michelle has just turned five, and her little brother, Maxim, is three. He is joining in the linguistic adventures—she takes the leading role and he follows her lead, repeating everything she says. So far, brother and sister mostly converse with each other in Russian, one of their shared home languages. We laugh at the ways five- and three-year-old use, mix, modify and reorganize our adult phrases in their play.

Our ears also pick up that they speak Russian, one of their native languages, with an accent. They do not sound quite like their monolingual Russian-speaking peers.

So we begin to wonder if this is something we should ignore, or something we should address in order to “correct.” Is it something that will develop and adjust spontaneously? Does it even matter whether they speak differently?

We look for answers to these questions, dive into available research and parental experience, always looking back at our initial goals and visions, revisiting and re-evaluating our understandings, judgments, insights.

We know that accents, or ways people sound, are very much part of the linguistic landscape around the world.  Sounds of speech are like colors and tastes; they tap into our feelings and memories, our perceptions and stereotypes. They also signal social bonding and facilitate understanding. They are hard to ignore.

We all have our personal accents, or micro-accents, in our native languages, but we know that typically accents will be a clue to where people live and grew up, or what social group they have been around.

We often develop an accent in a second, or additional, language, when our speech exhibits phonological characteristics of our native tongue.

But my grandchildren’s accent fits a different linguistic profile: it appears to be the result of interplay between their two home languages, Russian and French, and their additional language, English.

Is it even worth worrying about the sounds of their speech? Especially because languages—and accents—are fluid. Accents along with languages evolve and change over time, and the perceptions of accents also evolve across social, cultural and generational groups. The ‘norms’ or ‘proper sounds’ in any language or group are not set in stone.

When we make a language plan for our children, we usually do not include “achieving a desirable accent that reflects our ‘current norm’ or our ‘group norm’ of pronunciation.” Accents seem to be very much part of the diverse linguistic landscape. 

On the other hand, accents can play a role in the way we are understood—in the intelligibility and the quality of our communication; in our ability to adjust, to fit in various social, cultural and linguistic contexts. In the excerpt from The Jungle Book above, being able to sound like a snake allows Mowgli to be trusted and accepted as part of the group. This brilliant fantasy has many insights into human behavior.

Research tells us that accents depend to a large extent on the amount and diversity of exposure to languages. The more time you spend with a particular group, the more you sound like its members. We know that our grandchildren, Michelle and Maxim, are restricted, compared to their monolingual peers, in the amount and variety of exposure they receive to each of their two home languages. Perhaps they will get even less exposure to Russian and French as they enter the UK educational system and spend most of each day with English-speaking teachers and peers. An almost sure way to acquire a “British” accent, whatever that means . . .

So, we can say, fine, we do not have to worry about their accent in their home languages, this is not important, this is a trait of multilingual speech; linguistic proficiency is not measured by an accent, there are more important aspects of language we will focus on. We can only do so much . . . But if we think of multilingualism as an asset, then perhaps we should seek ways to support all aspects of it and provide our children with opportunities to acquire accents that will allow them to function with confidence and flexibility in diverse settings. Just like chameleons change color in response to environmental changes, multilinguals should be able to change their accent in response to a specific social, educational or cultural environment.

To support phonological development of our multilinguals in their home languages we can focus on the sounds of speech through engaging children in various activities:

  • reading, memorizing and reciting poetry;
  • listening to and singing songs;
  • listening to audio books; and
  • reading books—and anything readable—out loud.

We can also:

  • look for and create opportunities for interacting with same-language peers;
  • widen the circle of home language friends so children can be exposed to diverse models;
  • expose children to cultural events, lectures, performances;
  • use home country visits to immerse children in cultural and educational events, family and social gatherings; and
  • look for resources to identify and become aware of differences in speech sounds of different languages, in order to work on articulation/pronunciation.

Finally, consult a multilingual professional if you notice any difficulties with speech production and/or clarity!

At the end of each encounter with our little trilinguals, I always have a feeling of “not enough done, what else could we do?” . . . regrets, successes, new ideas, plans for the future. But of course, no matter what our plans ahead of time are, actual interaction with the children always brings joy and surprises.

Retaining an Accent: Why Some People Retain an Accent in a Second Language

Multilingual Accents

On Bilingual and Monolingual Children and Accents

Columnist Olga Steklova is a retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself. She shares tips for raising multilingual children as she observes her own grandchildren. To read more columns, click on the Ask Olga! category below.

Tags: Ask Olga! · Mother tongue at home

Ask Olga! The Art (and Fun) of Translation

June 10th, 2018 · 1 Comment

As the 2017-2018 school year comes to an end, we wish you a happy holiday! Olga Steklova sends you off with a column on translation games.

Our young granddaughter Michelle, like most multilingual children, has a natural ability to switch languages and perform simultaneous translation. We were building a sand castle on the beach once for a ‘man-eating monster’—a character from a fairy tale that I was telling Michelle in Russian. As her French-speaking dad emerged from the sea I was mentally getting ready to describe our sand ‘structure’ to him and trying to come up with an English or French equivalent for the character…but Michelle never even hesitated, and explained to her dad in French that it was a castle for an ‘ogre’.

I see this skill as the first step in the art of translation. Of course, one doesn’t have to be multilingual as a child to become an expert translator. However, a multilingual child has a natural ability—and often a need—to build bridges from one language to another.

At the early stage of development when children mostly operate using concrete categories, it is relatively easy to name objects or talk about everyday activities while switching from one language to another. As we read a story in Russian, I might ask Michelle to ‘translate’ it for her dad into French. Sometimes I might ask her to choose one of her French bedtime stories—from her extensive library in three languages—and retell it to me in Russian. This requires a combined effort, of course; she needs to want to share the stories, and I need to show genuine interest in them.

We sometimes play a version of the telephone game, in which I whisper a word, a phrase or an instruction to her in Russian, and she must deliver it to someone else’s ear in French (or English, depending on the participants of the game).

Such simple and fun activities give children practice in the skill of finding the best substitutes for words and ideas in other languages, making sure the meaning is not ‘lost in translation’.

When learning a language, big strides are usually made at the beginning. These initial achievements eventually level off as learners reach their ‘comfort zone’, the level that allows them to function minimally, enough to fulfil basic needs. Families can be quite content for their children to reach academic heights in one language, usually the language of education, and to become ‘minimally functional’ in others.

However, many parents of multilingual children nowadays, who know the benefits of being multilingual, choose to motivate and support their children to move beyond the basic levels of linguistic proficiency. They know that a high level of mastery in several languages opens a whole new world of options.

There are many ways parents and extended families can help children to maintain home, or heritage, languages at a high level—and translation games should definitely be on that list. Michelle is still at the early stage of development,  but this is a good time to start looking ahead, making enrichment plans for times not too far away…

The stage in which she will begin to operate sophisticated abstract concepts and ideas is just around the corner. Language used to express these concepts involves ambiguity and shades of meaning based on personal, cultural, emotional and educational experiences. As a multilingual she then has potential to blend such experiences into broader and deeper conceptual understandings. Translation practice, I believe, will help her to refine and deepen linguistic expertise, broaden general knowledge and cultural flexibility, and harbor appreciation of languages.

So, envisioning this ‘time not so far away’—but also getting ready for the long summer vacation—I have compiled a list of translation activities. Here it is, so far:

  • retell stories in different languages to family members, classmates and friends;
  • have regular creative sessions or conversations to find equivalents for concepts studied at school;
  • take passages from school books and translate them into one or more home languages;
  • have fun looking at expert translations of favorite books;
  • have a go at translating passages from favorite books and poems;
  • have fun working with dictionaries;
  • write journal entries, letters, stories, and plays, and translate them for family members who speak various languages;
  • find reasons and provide motivation for all the above. Be a model and enjoy translation together!

Our granddaughter Michelle loves songs and sings them in English, French and Russian. Intuitively, finding herself in a different cultural setting, she sometimes simultaneously translates a familiar song and sings it to the same tune but in another language. We can’t wait to see her this summer and have fun creating new songs, storytelling, building bridges between languages, and getting her ready for school, life and more linguistic adventures!

Tags: Ask Olga! · Mother tongue at home · Multilingualism

Ask Olga! “Kick as Hard as You Can”: Setting High Expectations for Native Language Practice

April 5th, 2018 · 2 Comments


A lot has been said here about balancing languages—and we have noted that much depends on our goals, needs, and available resources. Just as plants depend on the quality of soil and environment for their optimal growth, so children’s growth and linguistic development depend on the quality of their linguistic environment. When we put a plant on the balcony in a pot, we devise a plan for how to support its optimal growth in the given conditions. We provide fertilizers, protection from insects, and so on—a handbook on taking care of house plants gives many recipes. With children, when there is lack of certain ingredients for supporting native languages, we might turn to a manual on raising multilingual children, or design our own plan of support.

In this endeavor, we depend a lot on extra effort: our effort, and effort exerted by our children. “You have to make an effort and kick as hard as you can”—our four-year-old granddaughter Michelle recently realized for the first time, during swimming lessons, that learning requires effort. And resilience. No matter what you learn. In the end, effort and resilience bring reward and motivation.


Michelle is enjoying becoming trilingual. It feels very natural to her and appears effortless. Experience tells us, however, that a more rigorous and structured approach to mastering three languages will need to become part of the language plan. She will soon start school in English, which will set high expectations on her and will require continuous mastering of the language of instruction. This will pose additional challenges for maintaining her two home languages, Russian and French, and will certainly require extra effort and resilience.

Parents and close family members become models at the early stages of language development. As children grow, the circle of available linguistic models becomes wider and includes playmates, peers, teachers and other members of the social and academic context. Languages used within these circles will constantly tip the balance in more than one direction and might cause losses in native languages used at home.

At the early stages, therefore, it is especially important to anticipate this happening and to be ready to provide motivation and support for keeping native languages functional. The ultimate responsibility for supporting home languages lies with the family. Our role as adults is to understand the importance of a combined effort—the effort and challenge that pushes the child to the necessary level of independence and linguistic flexibility.

To be able to support our children linguistically we also need to challenge ourselves and push our limits of linguistic knowledge and competence. The level of our mastery will be the foundation for our kids’ growth. Research shows that parental language input style and complexity predicts child language development.

What can we do to make sure we support and maintain our children’s multilingual proficiency in the years to come?

The first very important step is to continue being models for our children and maintain a relationship with them that goes deeper than meeting their basic needs. Children love to ask questions. As they grow older, their questions, thoughts, and opinions will become more sophisticated.  We need to be prepared to have conversations with children on various topics; to keep them motivated by stimulating their interests and encouraging their curiosity; and to put them in situations requiring precise and complex language. Through all this, we are fostering their cultural and linguistic identities.

Here are some things we can do on a regular basis, in the languages we support, with enthusiasm, but also with effort and resilience:


Many games involve functional use of language, requiring children to describe, give definitions, use complex vocabulary, ask questions, negotiate meaning, use various linguistic elements, and reinforce specific skills and competencies.


Many activities need specific language to accomplish them: role playing, storytelling, cooking, crafting, planting, tidying up, sewing, fixing, swimming, etc.

Social Events

Social events provide opportunities to participate in family gatherings and celebrations; connect with playmates; and talk with people of different ages, areas of expertise, and personalities. These events provide exposure to cultural norms and ways of discourse, promoting understanding and acceptance of behaviors and ways of thinking and talking.

Collecting Knowledge and Experiences

Trips to new places and visits to theatres, museums, lectures and workshops encourage curiosity, build foundations for cultural and scientific literacy, and enrich language.


Literacy activities are building blocks of cognitive and emotional development. Look for books that have rich language and offer a high level of interest as well as challenge. Read to and with children; have conversations and discussions around texts; engage in retelling and interpretations. Literacy activities also include writing letters to relatives and friends, and keeping journals.

Columnist Olga Steklova is a retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself. She shares tips for raising multilingual children as she observes her own grandchildren. To read more columns, click on the Ask Olga! category below.

Tags: Ask Olga! · Family Language Plan · Mother tongue at home

Ask Olga! More on “Linguistic Balance”

January 29th, 2018 · 1 Comment


The holidays are over—we enjoyed them tremendously! Our grandchildren, while they were acquiring swimming skills here in Thailand, were also immersed in a rich “linguistic pool”.

“Tell me a story, Baba!” And I’d begin—in Russian. Breaks and pauses were not appreciated. “And then, Baba, and then?” At the age of 4, Michelle has an insatiable thirst for stories. We’d practice telling stories together. She would coerce me into taking the leading roles. Probably the same routine, with variations, happens in her other family language, French. She is also keen on talking about “mathematics”—perhaps her educational setting in her English preschool inspired her love for numbers. She easily transfers number concepts into Russian and French contexts. We are astonished by her linguistic gains and amused by her creativity and ability to switch effortlessly between languages, skilfully adjusting her talk to match the speaker’s “linguistic personality”.

Perhaps while memories are fresh, it is time to revisit some of our beliefs and assumptions and start setting goals and making new plans. Should we assume that our grandchild, through our family’s efforts, has become “balanced” in her linguistic ability? Or is it too early to draw conclusions, since language proficiency changes over time? The phrases “balanced bilinguals” and “language dominance” are often used when talking about bilingual and multilingual development. And yet, how can we define “balance”? Does this mean perfect or equal proficiency in each language, and how do we measure it? Especially taking into account the child’s ever-changing personal, social and educational landscape.


So many factors beyond our control throughout children’s lives will affect their need, and their ability, to use languages. Can we ever expect them to be perfect? Even if balance, or lack of it, between two languages might be possible to imagine and describe—my mind sees bicycles with two perfectly functional (or broken) wheels; or two floating icebergs with all parts intact (or some missing); or two fully (or partially) inflated balloons inside a person’s head—wait, what about the “balance” of three languages? The metaphors start to break up. Perhaps linguistic balance is not only an unattainable goal, but also an unhelpful way to look at linguistic ability in children who are growing up with several languages.

Rather than aiming at “linguistic balance”—which is hard to define and assess—we could aim at developing and strengthening children’s ability to function with confidence in linguistically and culturally diverse and changing settings. If we think about language in terms of its functions, or domains of use, we can then support children by expanding their experiences and providing contexts of language use for a wide variety of meaningful purposes. Those purposes might differ across languages, contexts and over time. To this end we set goals and make plans. Here it might be worthwhile to focus not just on goals and plans, but also on our visions. Whereas goals are specific and attainable, visions are broad, all-encompassing ideas. Goals of course are necessary, but visions provide purpose and significance for the whole endeavor of becoming functionally proficient language users.

Here is a link to a blog post, written by multilingual linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira: Dominant Languages and Balanced Languages

Columnist Olga Steklova is a retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself. She shares tips for raising multilingual children as she observes her own grandchildren. Here is a column that she wrote previously about linguistic balance, when the 4-year-old granddaughter described above was 2-1/2: How Important is Linguistic Balance?

Tags: Ask Olga! · Multilingualism

Ask Olga! Grandparents, The Holidays, and Multilingual Children

December 4th, 2017 · 2 Comments


This month we welcome columnist Olga Steklova back to the Native Language blog. A retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself, Olga shares tips for raising multilingual children—as she observes her own grandchildren!

The holidays are around the corner. We are excited, as we will see our daughter and family in just a few weeks!

Extended families play extraordinary roles in children’s lives and development—whether children are multilingual or not, and whether they live near or far. For families scattered around the globe, like my own family, holidays become those rare and precious occasions when children—as well as adults—can catch up on family history and family news, engage in favorite family games and activities, routines and celebrations. These reunions are perfect opportunities to support and enrich language development and reinforce cultural ties, and in our case, to make contributions to raising multilingual grandchildren!

Our trilingual grandchildren—Michelle, now almost four-and-a-half, and Maxim, almost two and a half—alternate spending holidays with both sets of their grandparents, Russian and French. Each visit results in a boost to one of their languages. The value of these visits cannot be overestimated. They are short but productive, devoted totally to family catching up and bonding. Both sets of grandparents can be proud of promoting linguistic, intellectual and emotional development of their grandchildren. Bravo!


Most Russian folk tales recognize the exceptional role of grandparents; Grandma and Grandpa are often the main characters in the stories. The famous folktale about the giant turnip is beloved by children, told and retold in many languages. Whether it tells about pulling a giant turnip, a giant potato, or a giant carrot, it reinforces a well-known and totally sensible idea: It takes the effort of more than one person—or rather, diverse personalities—to do a complex job. Children thrive when they participate in meaningful and authentic activities, guided by adults. And these adults are often their grandparents. What is more, the act of, so to speak, ‘pulling giant turnips’ in Russia might differ culturally and linguistically from ‘pulling giant turnips’ in France or the UK. 

Each activity where children are active participants will stimulate their emotional, intellectual and linguistic growth. Children who are learning to navigate the world in several languages benefit from maximum exposure to diverse linguistic settings and diverse speakers of each language.

Here is an incomplete list of language enrichment activities for the holidays: traveling to different geographical locations, shopping and cooking, sightseeing, visiting museums, telling and retelling stories, reading books, visiting friends, playing games, learning something new.

Through these activities, children will encounter new vocabulary and cultural ways of speaking, doing and thinking. They will also gain flexibility communicating across different age groups, and listening to different points of view. They wil learn to express ideas, concepts and emotions with more richness and precision. When all of this happens in different languages, their thoughts and expressive language acquire additional depth, nuances and shades of meaning. And that in turn positively affects all aspects of their development.

Sometimes, perhaps not too often, parents are apprehensive about entrusting their children to grandparents, for fear of upsetting the regular adopted rules and routines, of not being able to discipline children enough—for fear of losing control. Of course, negotiating and setting some sensible norms should be part of family communication and planning.

When this is done, enjoy the holidays, reap the benefits of extended family support, and be sure—languages will thrive!

Tags: Ask Olga!

Back by Popular Demand…Ask Olga! Language Support Via Skype

January 17th, 2017 · No Comments


When I read about a Korean grandpa who, for lack of face to face communication with his grandchildren, told them stories by means of virtual tools, and became a star of the internet – I realized that I could have become a star too… since that is something I do with my grandchildren as well (I bet many other grandparents do it too), and for the same reason – being far away. Skype and other virtual tools become substitutes for real connection and provide additional venues for widening exposure to language and culture.

Michelle’s expressive language is getting better every day – for now, the gains are more tangible in French. And no wonder – she has had more exposure and opportunities to interact in her ‘father tongue’. We are happy because these new competencies demonstrate the development of her general linguistic ability. Great! Still we are looking for ways to support the ‘roots and shoots’ of her other languages. So we supplement her ‘mother tongue’ by telling stories on Skype. I emphasize the art of storytelling because through oral language we also support many cognitive and emotional skills, the development of a child’s imagination, natural curiosity, the skill of listening and attention span.

Even though, as a rule, adults are able to improvise, it is a good idea to have a few stories ready before a Skype session. I usually make use of stories from ‘when I was little’ – how I went mushroom picking with my grandpa or how we found and saved a bird with my grandma. I retell folk tales, or make up adventure stories, often with ‘to be continued’ remark at the end of the session. Sometimes we talk about a recipe for a favorite kind of food or a salad I made last night, naming ingredients and giving cooking instructions. These conversations contribute to learning new vocabulary along with new concepts, and add to grammatical complexity of Michelle’s language, both receptive and expressive, and of course help maintain the emotional connection between the listener and the storyteller. I look back at my early days and begin to appreciate more and more my grandma who told and retold stories to generations of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Virtual communication is the best substitute for none at all, but of course we long for real face to face talk. Time to make travel plans!


Tags: Ask Olga!

Ask Olga! The Emergence of a Granddaughter’s Three Languages

November 2nd, 2016 · No Comments


Many events have taken place since the beginning of summer. Our little potential trilingual is at the age of three. With seemingly perfect understanding of at least two languages, Russian and French – the third language, English, is beginning to emerge. All three are competing for dominance – more time spent in France this summer resulted in French gaining the upper hand. Michelle now attends a half-a- day playgroup in English with children from two and a half to five years old.

We are witnessing an explosion in expressive language – she is becoming a chatterbox both at home and at school! Michelle is mixing all the three languages in one ‘pot’, so to speak, treating the ‘original recipe’ creatively, mixing/substituting certain ingredients to serve a set purpose. A chef might use mango instead of apple when mango is more easily accessible. So it is with language, in linguistics it is called code mixing – Michele as many other young multilingual children mixes linguistic ingredients or chooses words that are more easily available and at the same time serve her conversational purpose. This always raises a question whether it is ‘normal’ or requires corrective measures. It might be reassuring to rely on data from similar cases: mixing continues till about the age of five. We know that Michelle is able to differentiate languages and is aware of code mixing – she knows that papa, mama and teacher at preschool name the same things differently. So her mixing is evident only in conversation.

One theory is that mixing happens for the following reasons: a) children use it as a relief strategy – when the necessary ‘ingredient’ is more easily accessible or available in the other language, b) when one of the two languages is dominant and c) when parents are multilingual and use several languages for communication at home. So we watch and as grandparents find ways to perform our linguistic task – to provide exposure to the language we use with Michelle and to supply the missing ‘ingredients’.

Tags: Ask Olga!

Ask Olga! How Important is Linguistic Balance?

March 23rd, 2016 · No Comments


People who think seriously about raising multilingual children often worry about maintaining linguistic balance. Indeed, books, articles, blogs and parents’ pride in their mother tongue compel us to strive for balanced bi- or multilingualism. Balanced development of multiple languages is a worthwhile goal, and all our efforts to reach it should be praised. Yet, how attainable is it, even when the child is exposed to two or more languages from birth?

We often become upset when children ‘get stuck’ searching for a word in their mother tongue and substituting it for a word from another language; or, when children mispronounce words, misuse them or use expressions that are ‘direct translations’ from foreign expressions. Our two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter is probably still far away from this stage; we know she is just a toddler, and her ‘mistakes’ or ‘inventions’ are mostly a source of fun rather than worry. Quite soon, though, the time will come when we begin to place higher expectations on her, wanting to see the results of our efforts to create a balanced multilingual.

Being grandparents and not first-timers in this endeavor, we are probably more understanding and patient. Experience has taught us that ‘balance’ is an idealistic goal, and real life consists of deviations and approximations of various degrees. No matter how thoroughly we create the environment stimulating the development of multiple languages, there are always conditions beyond our control. The place where our child lives at any given moment, the child’s playmates, the language of schooling, the status of the language, the purposes of its use – all of these factors and more will continue to tip the linguistic balance throughout the child’s life. Our granddaughter has started attending a nursery in English – now that she is immersed in daily all-English activities with English-speaking peers and teachers, even before her Russian and French become fully developed, English will ‘compete’ for dominance. As a result, more than ever, we feel how very important it is to be creative in supporting her home languages.

Tags: Ask Olga!