Although the speech therapist and special needs educator Vika Raksina lives in New Jersey, this specialist in the teaching of Russian to multilingual children and designer of speech development programmes is known to parents of bilingual children in England and beyond. Her Facebook group, Let’s play with Vika. Early Years. Bilingualism. Speech therapy has over 50,000 members in different countries, many of whom Vika has helped to head off their children’s speech difficulties and instil in them a love of their native language. In this interview, the experienced speech therapist discusses the many stereotypes about bilingualism which have put down deep roots in émigré society, gives some well-founded criticism of Russian schools and offers a clear plan of action in an unconventional format.
What are the advantages of bilingualism?
Some people are convinced that bilingual development improves cognitive function. I have seen many articles about this topic, but I’m not overly convinced myself. For example, I know a young man who was brought up by his Russian mother and subsequently lived in Iran, France and now Scotland. He speaks four languages, but he has had no academic education and now he doesn’t know what to do with himself or where to work. In my view, neural synapses can be developed very well with the help of other activities such as chess and music. Knowledge of a second language is principally required to communicate, most of all with the parents. It’s important for Mums and Dads to know how to nurture a child and interact with them.
Is that why communication is important?
Yes, the bond between the parents and the child is very important. The fundamental motivation for teaching a second language such as Russian is selfishness. For instance, a mother may want to be intimate with her child, and using her native language provides that intimacy. If a mother wants her child to speak to their grandparents in Russian, while she speaks in English, then a good command of Russian will not be achieved, and communication with the grandparents will suffer as a result.
What are the main mistakes that parents of bilingual children make?
They believe that if they both speak their native language, their children will also pick it up, but actually, this isn’t enough.
I have a five-year-old child who understands Russian but doesn’t speak it. He reasons that, since he lives in England, he should speak English. If he lived in Russia, he’d start to speak Russian. What should I do?
You should insist, of course, because at the moment, you have the authority. Whether children want to speak their parents’ languages depends only on their parents. If they can’t set the child on the right course, then that means they haven’t found the right approach. I understand that it may not be possible with a 13-16 year-old as children of this age are hard to manage, with raging hormones. You have to be a good psychologist to handle a teenager. However, it’s much easier with a four or five-year-old. Say that knowing Russian is a family rule. Tell them about the enticing and tangible benefits of knowing the language, such as being able to watch wonderful films in Russian that don’t have an English translation or about the different professions they can have if they know Russian, or that, if they know two languages, more people will understand them.
Are there any critical age thresholds, which, if missed by a child, means they’ll end up not being bilingual?
The first of these thresholds is at the age of three. At this age, many children undergo a crisis, part of which may be a refusal to speak Russian. The second is at the age of four to five, the age children begin schooling in Britain. (In the US, it’s from six to seven). This is the most critical moment. When a child begins school, they start to speak the language of the country, get good grades, and receive the praise of teachers and parents. The value of Russian disappears, as neither the child nor those around them require it. It is precisely at this point that most children start to answer their parents in the language of their milieu, whether that’s English or something else. Many parents let this go; they understand that if they insist that the child continues studying their language, they may lose their trust and weaken their bond with them, so they switch to the language of the environment, although really they should keep on speaking Russian making concessions or worrying that something terrible will happen.
At this point, responsibility lies on the parents; if they resign themselves to the idea that the child’s native language is bound to be English and stop making efforts, then Russian is sure to disappear, even if it was at a very good level to the age of five or six. If Mum and Dad realise that English will inevitably be stronger than Russian, they can say ‘No, darling, it’s Russian at home, and English outside’ and keep on supporting Russian. And, after six months or a year, the child will come to learn that Russian is OK and it doesn’t get in the way of the school language.
The next important step is at the age of ten. At this age, children want to be like everyone else and not stick out from the crowd. I read that once in a book and didn’t believe it, but then my child confirmed that it was true. Speaking Russian makes a child stand out, it makes them a misfit, so many children refuse to speak it. At this point, it’s worth trying to talk about the future and approach the question more philosophically, as by this age, a ten-year-old, unlike a three-year-old, can hear your arguments out. It’s important to motivate the child and hold up the Russian language as a gift, a goal that must be worked towards and which can open up many possibilities for them. On top of that, you can tell the child that they can talk online to children from different countries who only speak Russian.
The fourth period, during which a child may reject the language is their teenage years, especially if relations within the family are strained; in this case, the child may refuse to speak their parents’ language. At this time, it’s important to reestablish contact with the child because, if there is discord between you, they won’t speak your language. However, at this age it can be an entirely different story; the child may suddenly decide to continue studying the language. From the ages of 14-16, children try to be leaders and stars. They want to make an impression. Knowing another language can only bring leadership. For instance, at my daughter’s school, the children especially learned Cyrillic letters to write notes that the teachers couldn’t read. Those who used to speak Russian badly start to brush up, to get into the “elite”, or “in-crowd”; ‘We’re speaking Russian, and you don’t understand, ha-ha!”. But this only works with children who already have some vocabulary in Russian.
You have to constantly monitor the child’s vocabulary. If you neglect this, then their language skills will eventually become limited to the simplest everyday situations and your demands that they speak Russian will seem completely absurd as the child just won’t know how to say anything. This is why, despite their resistance, you must always be trying to broaden their vocabulary, for instance by reading books to them, putting on plays, doing experiments, singing songs, having Russian-language tours of museums and telling them in Russian about various new topics. At six, a child doesn't yet know physics, but they can listen to you telling them about it in Russian. The fact that they don't yet have the requisite vocabulary in English isn't a hindrance.
What do you think; if only one parent speaks Russian, is there less chance of success?
Success depends on the parents’ motives. I know of many cases where Mum speaks Russian and Dad doesn’t, but she’s taken every effort to teach the child her language and they end up making it their own and loving it. If both parents are Russian-speaking, but they consider it sufficient simply to send the child to a Russian-language school, without speaking to them in Russian at home, the child often ends up forgetting the language.
For the child to learn the language, it’s important to spend time with them, talking and thinking up topics for conversation. This is because if your communication is limited to everyday phrases such as ‘How’s school?’, ‘Do you want to eat?’, ‘Wipe the table’ and ‘Dress warmer’, then the child’s vocabulary will remain very restricted and it will be difficult for them to talk to them about abstract topics.
When I was bringing up my younger daughter, who was born in America, I had a list of topics which I could talk to her about. Every day, on the way to and from school, we’d talk about specific topics for three to four minutes. I had it all written down; I knew what I would talk about in the morning, in the evening and at home over tea. This was fantastic for raising the level of her language; she quit Russian school since she thought that she could already read and that was enough, but her discussions at home allowed her to talk in Russian as we are now.
In my course, Bilingualism: Theory and Practice I discuss in detail how to choose topics to talk about, how to motivate the child and how to develop the home language.
Russian-speaking parents have had practically no experience of bilingualism.
Of course not. Most of us have grown up with only one language. By the way, many Americans have the same problem. English is omnipresent, almost half of all countries speak it, so it’s very hard for Americans to start to learn other languages as there's simply no need for it. It would also seem that Russian is unnecessary in America, which is why many Russian-speaking parents and their children study more promising languages, such as Chinese.
Have the issues faced by children coming to you for speech therapy changed in recent years?
Children all over the world have started to speak later. Nobody knows for sure why this has happened. I think it’s related to the general setting of information overload and stressed parents which somehow slows the development of speech. I’m not saying that the children are deprived of something, it’s just that the tempo of cognitive development is different. It may have been redirected; even if they haven’t been taught how to do so, some three-year-olds are adept at using a computer to find their games and cartoons, despite not yet being able to speak.
Why has it come to be that, back home, every child goes to a speech therapist from an early age, while in the West, it’s not at all common? Here, to be prescribed speech therapy, the child has to have severe developmental issues, but we seek out the services of speech therapists regardless of our children's linguistic development and do “tongue gymnastics”. Russian speakers follow the traditional model which they find familiar and work on the pronunciation of the letter “r”. These are two very different approaches. How much do children need speech therapists? Why, in Post-Soviet countries such as Russia, do they continue to correct speech defects with such ardour when we don't see this practice here in the UK?
I suspect that, in European countries, it is a question of financing. The norms of paediatrics and speech therapy are virtually the same everywhere; at 18 months, irrespective of whether or not they’re bilingual, children should be able to say a minimum of five words. If an American child can’t do this, they are provided with the help of a speech therapist; there is a state programme for non-verbal children which covers all of America. It’s not like this in Europe. I’ve been discussing this question with English people, French people and Norwegians and they've mostly all said that state support is difficult to get, so they have to go to expensive private clinics.
Amongst Russian-speaking parents, there is the view that English is easier, so children learn to speak it more quickly. Does this mean that they’ll start speaking Russian at the age of three?
I also think that English is easier, they get a hang of it more quickly because there is more of it around the child.
Are the developmental guidelines the same?
They’re exactly the same. But if the brain can choose a short English word rather than a long Russian one, it’ll choose the shorter word, this is normal and logical.
What should be done if a child isn’t speaking at 18 months?
I’m deeply convinced that you should run to a specialist. Don’t panic, don’t get upset, go to a neurologist and a speech therapist and do some tests. There may be problems which you can’t yet see but which you need to hear about as soon as possible. You’ll have plenty of time before they start school to correct all these problems so they can join a usual group. The later you start, the worse the results will turn out. If the specialist says to you ‘You’re mad, you're worrying about nothing’, then everything’s fine. Still, it’s important to go on paying attention to these issues because we don’t know how they’ll be doing at three or three and a half. People who confidently affirm that the child will start to speak at five and everything will be fine are deeply wrong. A child’s progress up to five is a huge part of their development. They should talk to mum, dad, their friends and their toys. So, even if they start to speak at five if they haven’t had the practice, they won’t have the basic vocabulary and their speech will be more primitive and indistinct. On top of this, they may have behavioural and psychological problems because, if a child can’t talk, they look for other outlets for their energy; some turn inwards, whilst others become aggressive.
To avoid this, we start to work with the child independently from the age of 18 months. I often give consultations and I begin by asking them to send me a video of the parents playing with the child. 90% of people can’t play with children. Or rather, it’s better to say that they’re great at playing, but they don’t include development teaching techniques in their play. For example, after building a pyramid out of blocks together they say ‘Well done, clever clogs’. But it would be good to give more information, to say that the base of the pyramid makes a circle, to name the shapes made by the holes and all the colours. You can watch my internet courses, which help children to get talking, or have a look at the textbooks.
In families, there are many examples of parents or grandparents who started to speak late but went on to become professors. Is there a genetic component to this delayed development?
Once a boy was brought to me who wasn’t speaking at the age of 18 months. There were no serious problems, but the mother insisted he had three sessions a week. I worked with him for a year and when, at two and a half, he started to speak, her mother wept with joy. It turned out that the family had a genetic defect which was passed down the male line; all the men only started to speak at the age of five. Later in life, they all talk about how difficult it had been for them during those five years, about being teased and how bad they felt. His grandfather’s hands still shake when he talks about it. The mother really wanted to save her child from this fate, so we did a lot to get him talking. This means that, even if there’s a genetic predisposition to delay the onset of speech, you can bring it forward if you work on it persistently.
So is there a genetic basis for verbal intellect?
Well, yes and no. There can be different reasons for delayed speech. But if you start working on it earlier, there’s more chance that some problems will be avoided or that they’ll be less noticeable. Full verbal communication skills will develop.
Does this mean that by developing speech, we are developing the intellect?—
We are developing thought. Speech is the process of cognition.
So is it right to say that you are shifting the accent from developing the Russian language to developing speech in general?
We work on their use of Russian. This includes reading, writing, the linguistic system, and the grammatical rules which produce normal spoken language. We develop verbal and written skills, which are all part of developing the language.
How effective are online schools and techniques for bilinguals?
First of all, we need to understand what we need and what makes a school. There are a lot of different schools. Some have their own special methodologies and they recruit teachers who suit these techniques. Other schools specialise in specific subjects, such as chess. They may have gathered together dozens of teachers who all give chess instruction using their own personal approach. At other schools, different teachers offer different courses, some of which may interest your child. I wouldn’t recommend online courses for very small children, I’d start from the age of five or six. I also have several courses for children. They are pre-recorded, so they can be done whenever is convenient for the child when they're full of energy rather than tired and grumpy.
If a child doesn't want to speak Russian is there any point pushing them into one of these schools?
What does your child like?
That means that you should find a programme about trains in Russian, so that, for instance, you could do projects and read books together with the child. Talk about what different trains there have been in England, the USA and France. I’m sure that a course like this exists. Or you could write to different schools and let them find a specialist for you.
As for reading in Russian, you can force them to study a textbook, but it’s a colossal labour to reach the point when they love reading and they will voluntarily take books from the shelf. Mothers who manage this deserve medals. Often children speak Russian well and can read but they feel they have no need to support this skill. So, while I recommend teaching children to read in Russian, you mustn’t think that this is the only way of getting the language into their heads. By no means would I dismiss the importance of reading, but we should not necessarily think that this is the key, especially if the child has a small vocabulary. Different clubs, where they can learn about those trains, programming languages, clay modelling, discuss films or do different projects are all more effective for the development of natural language than learning to read. Children need information in a dynamic, playful format, rather than grammatical rules.
Russian schools often follow the Russian syllabus, using the same textbooks. They teach joined-up writing. Is this unnecessary?
I believe that Russian schools are making a big mistake when they devote their single lesson a week just to reading alone. If, as well as these standard lessons, they also had drama groups and choirs, this would be more effective. One Russian lesson a week, in which they only teach reading, does not benefit even the most gifted children.
What’s more, everything depends on your aims. If you want your child to go on to study only in Russian or to write treaties in the language, of course, they have to know the grammar and how words decline. In this case, a lot of time has to be devoted to reading and grammar. Lessons are needed several times a week and there has to be homework. If this isn’t your aim, it’s worth focusing on developing elegant speech with a large stock of words, phrases, associations, opposites and synonyms. The child may not end up knowing the names of the Russian grammatical cases and may not understand what an adverb is, but all the same, they’ll be able to speak Russian well.
The mistake of many Russian schools is that they teach everyone to the same mould, while every child needs their own approach. For example, I have produced quite a lot of books which help to support knowledge of Russian, such as books about logic and mathematics in the language. They have simple exercises because they are specifically aimed at getting the child to start speaking. One of my workbooks is a story about some American children who are learning Russian. I thought of it while my daughter was going through the same thing; I recalled everything that she used to say and based the main character in the book on her. She was doing simple things; learning to read and doing homework, and the children wanted to help her. I don’t set complicated rules, only basic ones, about capital letters and how to write “zhi-shi”. Children remember these more quickly than the rules in standard textbooks.
Very many teachers at Russian schools in Britain follow the classic syllabus and offer children reading material previously read by Soviet children. For example, The Little Humpbacked Horse contains many archaisms and words from peasant life which are completely incomprehensible to bilingual British children. Is this the right approach?
What do teachers in Russian schools want? They want their material to be as Russian as possible. This means they don’t offer anything from the wide range of well-translated literature available, as they consider that it deals with different countries, realities and customs. I believe that this isn’t quite the right approach, since, if a book has been well translated and beautifully produced, why not read it? I understand that an English child should read the original and not the translation, but what if they like this particular book? What happened with my daughter was that she liked Harry Potter, so she found the books in English, but I took that version off her and she read them in Russian instead. However, she wouldn't have opted to read Pushkin or The Little Humpbacked Horse under any circumstances.
I’m not against the classics, but to instil in a child a taste for reading, you have to give them something they find interesting, rather than what adults consider worthy of attention. Exclusively giving bilingual children books chosen to develop them as readers of Russian literature is a very arduous route. This isn’t the way to preserve and develop their knowledge of the language. Our task is to encourage children to enjoy reading, because the more Russian language literature the child finds interesting, the more effectively their learning will progress.
Many teachers really do choose classic Russian books which are difficult for bilingual children and full of obsolete terms. Even when I was little and I went to school in Russia, only a third of our class read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In the American village where I live, there is a teacher who teaches well and to a high standard. Every year she puts on plays with the children. Eight to ten years ago, her class put on Evgeny Onegin in a big hall, with a beautiful set. The children all learned their lines by heart. About five years passed and the boy who had played Evgeny Onegin asked his mum who Evgeny Onegin was. She was very upset. Why did this happen? The child hated Russian and he only learned it because of the instance of his mother.
This is why I have a peculiar attitude toward the Russian language. I understand the pride of a parent whose child reads Russian literature in the original and can hold conversations about it. But it has to be understood that if your child doesn’t read Turgenev and Dostoevsky, that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad mother who has failed to pass something on. Remember our own school days, when they forced us to read everything, but we didn't read half of it anyway. It’s possible to be clever, cultivated and appreciate music, while not, for instance, appreciating literature. An ingenious physicist or mathematician need not be gifted in the humanities.
Could we say that it’s important to enjoy life and not be restricted by boundaries?
When we had just arrived in America, I, like any Soviet mum, had set myself on getting my child to Harvard. But the headteacher of our school said ‘The main thing in life is for your child to be happy’. This is a very sound idea, but I couldn’t completely accept it at first. In the US, there are four different levels of maths classes; those who can’t keep up, people who can do maths, those who have a good grasp of the subject and those who can do the college syllabus whilst still at school. What’s more, you may not even be aware of the existence of these different classes and just be pleased with how you’re getting on. And this is the right system because people shouldn’t feel defective, they should feel that they’re doing well. So, if your child hasn't read Pushkin, but has read another book, there's a chance that someday, they might also turn to Pushkin. But if you insist from the very start that they look at things that they don’t find interesting, then the chances that one day they will read in Russian are not great.