English

On stress management.

So last Sunday, just two weeks after you wielded absolute power via Twitter over the BBC’s Formula One coverage, you were shamed on live international TV by the same commentator, Martin Brundle, who had previously accepted your correction of his pronunciation of the Russian driver PetROV’s name.

He’d asked PetROV how to pronounce his name, and come away with the impression that the way that he, Martin, and every other English speaker says it (‘PETrov’) was, in fact, correct.

‘After all he should know,’ he ended triumphantly.*

You can think of a number of reasons for the discrepancy between your understanding of the pronunciation and Martin’s**.

  • You are wrong. This is clearly not an option.
  • PetROV is wrong. Now he has been living abroad for a while. You strongly suspect that he has given up worrying about the mad things English speakers do to his name. If Martin said ‘Am I saying this right? PETrov?’ you can well imagine him thinking himself lucky that his name wasn’t being pronounced ‘Peters’ and nodding enthusiastically.
  • Martin is wrong.
Now you do not rule out option two, but in fact you are going for door number three as you would not be at all surprised if the truth is that when PetROV growled ‘PetROV’, Martin heard ‘PETrov regardless. And here’s why.

One of the problems people encounter with language learning, when learning a new language rather than acquiring more than one language as a child, is the amount of interference they get from their native tongue.

This is particularly pronounced when it comes to pronunciation.

Theoretically, babies are born with the potential to speak any language, although recent studies show that even in the womb they are picking up elements of what will become their native tongue. It doesn’t take long before babies are showing a marked preference towards what will become their mother tongue(s). Even babies’ babble is different for different languages.

This means that out of the full range of sounds a human mouth can make, sooner rather than later, they start to fixate on a really rather limited number. And it’s not just sounds either, but things like patterns in sentence and word stress and intonation. Babies quickly get used to a particular way of declaiming a language and, and this is the important bit, they start to lose the ability to really hear, let alone produce, nuances in the pronunciation in other languages.

People tend to think it’s the individual sounds they need to pay attention to in pronunciation. But while you can have a lot of fun discussing sheets with B on laundry day because Russians do not have a long/ short vowel distinction and tend to pronounce the ‘i’ and ‘ee’ in ‘trip’ and ‘tree’ the same, mainly all that mispronunciation of sounds does is tip other people off that you are someone with a charmingly other accent.

Word stress is important for comprehension, much more so than the pronunciation of individual sounds. There are some real WTF moments to be had when struggling to work out what somebody who has just put the stress on the wrong syLAble of a key word actually means.

Now stress in English is achieved in three ways. Firstly, a stressed syllable will be louder than other syllables. So far so obvious. But it will also be longer than other syllables and higher in pitch.

This is not the same in all languages. In French, for example, all syllables take the same mount of time to say, regardless of stress.

Russian has a much narrower pitch range than English. Their lows are not as low and their highs are not as high.

This is mainly a problem in intonation, especially as they also change pitch less often in any given utterance.

And what does intonation convey? Politeness, interest, emotion.  In particular, in English we show politeness and interest by starting really high, changing pitch often and swooping up to the full height or full low of our range.

Most Russians, then, tend to come across as flat, monotone, disinterested, rude.

It also means that English speakers sound tragically over excited about virtually everything when they speak Russian. Russians habitually think that English speakers are more tired, more excited, more angry, more everything than they actually are whether they are speaking Russian or English.

And that means it is harder for a native English speaker to spot, let alone reproduce, word stress in Russian. They are only doing two and a half of the three things the English speaker does.

It doesn’t help that in this case, English two-syllable nouns almost always put the stress on the first one.

Now spotting pronunciation nuances, including word stress, is one of those skills that comes with practice.

You are pretty good at it. You have spent 15 years in classrooms wondering why Kirill is virtually incomprehensible and trying to fix it. That’s a lot of time tuning your ear into mistakes.

Martin Brundle clearly isn’t.

Not that he should feel too bad about it. He can hear things in the note of an engine that you wouldn’t even with a pause button and the volume turned up high.

But given that he might feel a little dubious about accepting the expertise of some pseudonymous Internet weirdo, and because you, obviously feel the need to prove to the Internet at large that you are the one who is right, you have decided to provide him, and the rest of the Formula One presenters with some more, some many more examples of Russian people, commentators, newscasters and random fans saying ‘petROV’, sometimes quite loudly, in the hope that if it is repeated often enough they will be able to get their ear in.

You would also like them to pay attention to the fact that there’s a rolled R and the ‘v’ sound at the end is much softer, more like an F, than they are expecting.

But you will be magnanimous in victory and give them till the end of the season to get that right.

The video evidence***.

A feature on Vitaly PetROV on the news. His name is at 9 seconds, 50 secs, 1 minute 25 and 2 mins 34. Or thereabouts.

Another news item. With an interview! See 50 secs, 2 mins 5, 2 mins 42,  3 mins 14, 4 mins 52 and 5 mins 10.

Sports news reports this time. See 10secs, 21 secs, 50 secs and probably at points thereafter as well (and bask in PetROV’s podium).

PetROV is at some promotional event. See 30 secs, 4 mins 18, 4 mins 51, and especially 5 mins 40 – 6 mins where the commentator gets quite shouty. And 6 mins 30. Also, aren’t F1 cars loud?

Last but not least, PetROV is unveiling something in GUM. Organised chanting by the crowd before 1 minute.

*The race is till up on iPlayer for one more day if people would like to witness your humiliation first hand. The section in question is sometime soonish after the halfway point in the race. No, you are not going to be more specific than that.

**Now you are in an actually back and forth dialogue, you are even more sure that you are on first name terms with Marty.

***It is legal, apparently, for you to splice these videos together to make one long ‘petROVpetROVpetROVpetROVpetROV’ drone. Something to do with satirical purposes.**** You would appreciate any help on whether it is possible.

****Satirical? Someone on the TV is WRONG! This is deadly serious.

On the exploding Star.

You’ve spent nearly fifteen years of your life around adults learning English now. You feel quite at home with the mistakes they make, the concepts they have difficulty with and the way that they fail comprehensively to get to grips with articles.

So you find the way the Star acquires language completely fascinating. Mainly because it really is not quite the same, and you’ve never really had the opportunity to compare taught learning with full on just picking it up before. Or at least not in someone who doesn’t know anything about language when they set out.

Now of course some of that fascination is at just how quickly small human minds develop. The Star, for example, understands the concept of time. You feel this a big achievement for a two and a half year old. He says ‘Babushka go shopping’, ‘I did it’, ‘Where going?’ and ‘It gone!’ Notice that not only does he have the basic present and past tenses (present simple for ‘Babushka go[es]…’* and past simple for ‘I did it’**), but he has also mastered the continuous aspect (‘where [are we] going?’***, which you are assuming is present continuous given that he hasn’t shown much awareness of the concept of future time yet), and the perfect aspect (‘It [has] gone!’, present perfect****).

Believe me, any adult language learner who can differentiate between the simple, continuous and perfect aspects in English without conscious effort is well on the way to fluency. Particularly the perfect, which seems to defeat everybody, no matter what their language background

However, the interesting thing is that when he first started using them, you do not feel that the Star had really grasped tenses in any Chompskian way. It was not, you felt, that the Star had assimilated structural ‘formulas’ into which any relevant verb can be inserted in order to express the same concept. The Star used the phrases above correctly it is true, but almost exclusively in those words, as fixed chunks of language.

There are definite signs of breakthrough now though, with the –ing forms coming thick and fast and still entirely correctly now (‘Look! Doggie walking!’). He has also just started to invert subject and verb ( ‘is it…..?’ rather than ‘it is…’) to mark a question rather than a statement, which really is a pretty impressive piece of language engineering.

It’s the same with articles (a/an/the). He puts them in, while leaving them out is practically B’s only remaining grammatical deficiency in English. But only in phrases he knows and loves like ‘shut the door’ and ‘where the keys?’****

The Star in fact is like a little walking example of the lexical approach to English language teaching, the argument that fixed phrases are much more important that we usually give credit for and teaching discrete items of lexis and endless formulas is rather missing the point.

Of course, chunking is not just about grammar, but includes a lot of collocations – words that go together. For example the way that we say ‘a tall man’ rather than ‘a high man’. It’s noticeable that the Star says ‘fast asleep’ not ‘asleep’ when he is about to prod you and shout ‘wakey wakey’ in your ear of a morning, and ‘flying high’ (delightedly) when he is on the swings.

Unfortunately, the Star’s adjectives are mostly in Russian, and god knows you Russian isn’t sophisticated enough for correct chunks. Luckily, the Star’s Russian already far exceeds yours for the Star understands verbs of motion. He remembers to correctly distinguish between the verb you need to talk about going on foot and the one you need to talk about movement via car/ train/ bus, although you are forced to admit that he has only got two of the full variety of words to describe the different states the journey maker is in at the time of speaking.

He also does not use ‘na’ (‘here, take it’) to mean ‘die’ (‘oi, give it here!’) or vice versa. You are immensely impressed.

Even more astounding, though, is the Star’s ability with prepositions in English.

Prepositions are the bane of non-native speakers.

It’s not the ‘on the box/ in the box/ next to the box’ ones that give them the nervous twitch, or even time ones (why ‘in the morning’ but ‘at night’? Why ‘in July’ but ‘on Junly 23rd’? And so on). There are rules for those. Well, tendancies at least.

No it’s the completely arbitrary ones assigned to certain words for no reason whatsoever (‘succeed in’,, ‘good at’, apologise for’, ‘keen on’, etc etc etc. Etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc etc.). And as for phrasal verbs, the whole point of which is to take a verb, take a preposition (or, ok, an adverb) and slam them together to make a new work which bears no relation to any meaning its component parts have ( ‘get on’, ‘get down’, ‘get off with’, ‘get along’, ‘get over’, ‘get out of’, ‘get it up’, ‘get into’ ‘get through’,  ‘get back into’, etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc. Etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc. Etc).

The Star uses phrasal verbs as though he is born to it. It is extremely disconcerting for you to hear someone with barely coherent English command you to take it off, turn it on, wake him up and put me down.

Luckily for your nerves, the Star is utterly pants at negatives.

Particularly amusing is the way he just doesn’t bother with any negative indicators at all. There he is, red faced and glaring, shouting ‘I like it! I like it!’ at the top of his voice. Or flinging his food crossly across the room with the words ‘Nada. Nada! NADA!’ [need].

When he does remember to add something, it’s usually ‘ne’ or ‘not’ before the verb. Which works perfectly in Russian, but isn’t quite there for English. That auxiliary verb problem again.

Despite this triumph for the Slavic language, you are not telling B at the moment that the Star is mainly still at the level of individual words in Russian, rather than actual coherent sentences that he is beginning to produce in English.

It might be a good idea if the MiL came back from her break soon.

* Used, correctly, to express routine, habitual behaviour.

** Used, correctly, to talk about a finished action in a finished time period. Usually when Papa asks him who broke the remote/ listened attentively at Russian class/ scattered Rice Crispies all over the floor/ helped Mama make the muffins/ pooed in his nappie instead of his potty/ drawn that beautiful picture after Mama has given Papa her daily report when he arrives home from work.

***Used, correctly, if repeatedly, to ask about an action in progress at the moment of speaking whenever you have both set out somewhere but have not yet actually arrived.

****Used, correctly, and with an expression of great surprise, to comment on a past action with present relevance. In this case why the toy duck/ apple/ piece of paper/ potato/ remote is not where he left it a few minutes ago.

*****The Star has the very Russian habit of leaving the verb ‘to be’ out. The astute reader will also have noticed the lack of auxiliary verbs in the examples of tenses. The interesting thing here is that none of these verbs have any serious lexical meaning. They are just there to convey the grammar, not the content of the utterance. So in ‘That doggy is walking’, ‘walking’ is the main verb, and ‘is’ is the auxiliary verb, for example.

On Ps and Qs.

It’s always a bit of a shock to find out that you have a linguistic tic.

During the years you spent teaching English as a foreign language it got to the point where you could predict the average language learning ability of any given group by how quickly they asked you what ‘splendid’ meant. Within the first few lessons and they would be quick on the uptake. The first month was more average. If you had been teaching them for half a year before anyone enquired, well, you would already know that they were heavy going. If they never asked, they were either beyond hope, or so good that they had figured it out and were using it fluently without needing to bother you.

And yet you were never once conscious of using the phrase, let alone so plentifully that nearly every student you have ever had has commented on it.

Likewise it was disconcerting when just before Christmas the Star suddenly started using polite phrases without any previous prompting from you. ‘Fank oo’, Mama’ he says earnestly when you fetch him some water. ‘No, fanks’ when you ask him his he wants some more apple, although he occasionally gets it wrong and uses it when you were actually asking a rhetorical question such as ‘I think it’s time for your bath now, don’t you?’. ‘Peeeeeees’ is particularly well targeted though; it is much in evidence when he wants something he thinks you will be reluctant to supply. Like TV.

But aside from the fact that he only does this in English, it’s his use of ‘sorry’ that confirms he has picked all this up from you. B finds the British habit of sprinkling ‘sorry’ around at every possible opportunity hypocritical. His insistence that it should only be used when one actually is sorry would account for the fact that he almost never says it. This often this gets him into trouble. Frequently not only with you.

Of course, the Russians are also less liberal when chucking around the ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’. You, on the other hand, are incapable of completing any transaction without them. People in Russia found it charming the first few weeks, but when you were still asking for your bread in the bakery with the equivalent of ‘oh, could you please, if it isn’t the most awful trouble, possibly see your way towards giving me a loaf of bread, if you would be so kind’ after six months, well, it was clearly getting a bit old.

The English over-excited intonation didn’t help either.

Anyway, the Star has the British ‘sorry’ down pat. ‘Sowy’ he said cheerfully,when you yelped as he swung one of your pictures energetically back and forth this evening. ‘Sowy.’

And then he did it again.

Interestingly, all these words suddenly entered his vocabulary in one morning. You find the idea that some neural pathway was suddenly formed to where he’d got these phrases stored all together in a sub-section of the part of the brain marked ‘social interaction, the lubrication of’ quite intriguing.

On doggeral.

The Star didn’t show much interest in books at first.

That would have required lieing or sitting still for more than thirty seconds.

When he achieved the independence dragging himself around on his tummy gave him, he was too interested in investigating the dust build-ups on obscure parts of your furniture to bother with something Mama didn’t scream ‘No!’ at whenever he got close.

You would like to say that it was your persistence in dragging the Star off to the library every week that finally paid off, but you know the Star just went there on the off chance that he could make a break for the shelves and pull all the books onto the floor while all the other under fives were singing ‘… with a baa baa here…’.

In fact, the Star got hooked on books because your Mother in Law brought over a whole suitcase full of very brightly coloured, very ethnic volumes and spent hours pinning the Star down and pointing out the rabbits! The cows! The snow! The wolves! The silver birch trees! The bears! The geese! The porridge! The foxes! The squirrels! The cute red-headed children! The roosters! The samovars! The babushkas cooking! The dedushkas relaxing on the top of  the stove! The complete absence of any mother or father figures!

The Star’s repertoire of animal noises also came on apace, but he had a distinct preference for books which had a more encyclopedic bent over story books.

You faced a future of  hours spent on the sofa pointing out a red car, a blue car, a yellow car with four doors, a green car with four doors and a roof rack, a white car, a black van, a grey Renault Megane Sport Tourer with

  • Air Conditioning
  • 4x 15W RDS radio CD
  • Height adjustable driver’s seat
  • Electric front and rear windows
  • Centre console with armrest
  • Longitudinal roof bars
  • 17″ ‘Sari’ alloy wheels
  • Parking proximity sensors – rear
  • Front fog lights
  • Multi-functional Tunepoint
  • Arkamys 3D Sound 4 x 30W RDS radio CD with Bluetooth
  • Brushed aluminium effect door mirrors

But then the Star discovered narrative. It seemed to help a lot that you got bored with the board books and boldly went for the more complex floppies. Of course, this means that when you use them as an incentive for keeping the Star at the table and eating, it is much harder to hose them down before you take them back to the library, but then you do pay large amounts in fines on your own account every year, so you figure that evens things out.

Unfortunately, as well as actual stories, the Star has an unfortunate liking for rhymes. Unfortunate because so many of the ones written for children are truly awful.

You have developed a particular hatred for anything written by Julia Donaldson, which is the most unfortunate thing of all as the Star thinks she is so good that you have accidentally and extremely reluctantly memorised the whole of Stick Man.

The poetry rolling around in your brain now consists of part of Romeo’s balcony speech, A Broken Appointment by Thomas Hardy, snatches of John Donne and…

Stick Man lived in the family tree with his stick lady love and his stick children three. One day he woke early and went for a jog. Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the dog!*

This is not as bad as The Snail and the Whale which is a million stanzas all dedicated to finding every conceivable rhyme for ‘snail’ Or possibly ‘whale’. But your real ire is reserved for this bit:

Here are the children running from school, fetching the fireman, digging a pool, squirting and spraying to keep the whale cool.

Now as far as wordsmithery goes, it’s got a nice driving but slightly choppy rhythm you actually approve of. But the accompanying pictures show quite clearly that while the children do the running, the fetching and some of the digging, it’s the firemen who are doing the squirting and spraying and this utter mangling of grammar drags fingernails scraping across the chalkboard of your soul every time you get to it. And that’s really what annoys you, because in every book of hers you come across there’s something, one stanza that is so sloppy it makes you cross. You appreciate it isn’t Shakespeare, it’s just children’s light literature, but really. Could she not have spent another day or two trying to nail the best possible, grammatically correct, phrasing?

Russian children, on the other hand, get Pushkin. Who, in fact, is the Russian equivalent of Shakespeare, even down to a shared delight in the odd filthy couplet.

Specifically, the Star gets the prologue to Ruslan and Ludmilla an epic fairy tale which both Babushka and Papa learned off  by heart when they were kids, with the Star now hot on their heels. He joins in key words already.

You have fallen back on Roald Dahl and his Revolting Rhymes. Which you enjoy, but which suffer from having been written at a time when marketing was presumably not designed to squeeze every last kopeck out of this cash cow and therefore crams six poems into one volume, with the sparing use of only one illustration per story. This, sadly, does not hold the Star’s attention as you might like and somehow it isn’t quite something you feel like memorising to spout on the hoof.

But you are coming to the conclusion that the only way to keep up with the Jonsikovs is to find some great works of rhyming genius to declaim. So any suggestions of poems that are worth the effort and suitable for small people would be extremely welcome.

Preferably fairly short ones though.

*Stick Man, incidently, looks like a stick. In fact you would go so far as to say he is a stick, except with (stick-like) arms, legs and consciousness.  He spends the entire book getting mistaken for a stick, and being outraged about it. You find this surprise very very irritating.

On not needing until he is seven.

The Russian word for ‘God’ is ‘Bog’.

You find this irresistibly entertaining at times. Such as last week when you, B and the Star were squelching across a muddy section of grass on your way to the playground.

‘It’s a bog. Boggy bog. Bog bog bog. Where’s the bog?’ You were saying to the Star, while B rolled his eyes.

And the Star fixed you firmly with a hard stare and said, ‘Bog there!’

Pointing upwards.

He’d only been going to the religious-themed Russian language playgroup for two weeks at that point.

On the perils of bilingualism.

One of the more charming quirks of the Russian language is the use of ‘totya’ (aunt) and ‘dyadya’ (uncle) to refer to any woman or man of childbearing age.

This has entirely replaced ‘lady’ and ‘bloke” in your house as a way of referring to people on the street.

The problem with this is that the Star cannot pronounce ‘dyadya’ properly yet and says ‘daddy’ instead. And because he is still going through that phase of liking to name things he sees, it means that he is often pointing at random men you walk past and shouting ‘daddy?’ in a questioning tone of voice.

This is nothing, however, to the embarrassment you suffer when you are out with B and his brother, the Star’s actual dyadya.

Your family under those circumstances has one Mama, one Papa and one Daddy.

You have learnt not to catch people’s eyes.

On swinging both ways.

‘Bilinguals,’ says a book you have out of the library on the subject*, ‘are like hurdlers.’

This is not reassuring.

Partly, of course, because as the mother of a proto-teenage boy you are ever alert to potentially dangerous situations and the first thing that comes to mind is not ‘Oh, good god, how will we afford the insurance fees for the gold medal?’ but this.

Although you suppose it is better than hanging out on the swings doing drugs.

Mostly, however, it is because this phrase neatly encapsulates all your fears about bilingualism.

For the book goes on to explain that a bilingual may not be able to jump as high as a high jumper or sprint as fast as a sprinter, but is none the less a true athlete for all that.

Which is all very well, but to you, admittedly a rampantly unrepentant monolingual, only being able to operate at 90% in either language sounds like a terrible fate.

You do appreciate that any bilingual is going to have areas where he is better in one language than another. When the Star is based in Moscow working as a lawyer in a top Russian law firm**, he will naturally have a better developed range of Russian legal jargon than English, more extensive expensive Russian billing terminology than English and a more fluent grasp of some of the subtler Russian conventions for lying than English.

When he goes home to his doting English wife, he will doubtless be better able to chat idly about Strictly Come Dancing in English, make more impassioned complaints about his chops in English, and mutter better rebellious English curses under his breath *** when he his told off for leaving his socks in the middle of the living room floor again.

But there’s a difference between that and not, fundamentally, being able to cut it fully in either language. In any language. In language at all. You spend a lot of time with non-native speakers of English and while they refuse to say sorry, do horrible things to the word ‘squirrel’, drop their articles, butcher the present perfect, insist on asking ‘who plays in this film?’ and are incapable of producing polite intonation unless you grip them firmly by the balls, you never get the impression that they lack the innate ability to really make words sit up, beg and occasionally dance the hornpipe the way you have sometimes done while dealing with certain bilinguals of your acquaintance. You would be happier not shooting for balanced bilingualism if that’s the fate that awaits the Star.

And then how will he win the Nobel Prize for Literature**?

Oddly enough, if the Star were to have a dominant language, you would prefer it to be Russian. After all, you have based you career **** on the fact that the main usefulness in knowing English is because it’s the lingua franca of the world, and for that no one needs to have a Saaf Landan accent.

It is also easier, you think, to be a non-native speaker of English and find a place in the English speaking community than it is to be a non-native speaker of Russian in a Russian speaking community.

B is particularly passionate about this. If the Star doesn’t speak Russian like a Russian, he won’t be Russian is his position.

Which is a shame, as you strongly suspect that it would be easier to achieve that if you weren’t all living in the UK, the default language used at home didn’t tend to be English and that you, of course, the main caregiver, weren’t the resident native English speaker.

And unfortunately the situation is no longer academic. The Star is over a year old and can reasonably be expected to start uttering his first words around now.

You and B have been waiting with bated breath.

The Star seems to have got ‘Mama’ down pat. Unfortunately, he tends to say it to B.

You, he calls ‘Baba’.

You think he means ‘Papa’.

Either way, your figure the honours are about even on that one, although if you really want to annoy B, you point out that he is really more fond of ‘Dada’ than anything else. Russian babies don’t call their fathers (or mothers) that.

Imagine your consternation, then, when, after a weekend at (English) Granny and Grandad’s house the Star came back saying, quite distinctly, ‘Wo di?’ when anything new caught his eye.

Luckily, after intense coaching, he seems to be happy alternating that with ‘Sya?’ which you are assuring B means ‘што ето?’ too.

But on balance it is probably a good thing that the Star’s non-English speaking but very garrulous Babushka arrived last weekend for an extended stay.

 

 

*After it has spent a whole chapter failing miserably to decide what a bilingual person actually is. Someone with native-like competence in two languages is, you gather, a definition to be thoroughly sneered at, but since the alternative – labeling everyone who can say ‘konnichiwa’ incipiently bilingual in Japanese – is something that makes you want to fling something hard at the academic who came up with it, that’s the one you will be going with here, thanks very much.

**Which is clearly more likely than him winning at the Olympics.

***Not his nose, as he would in Russian.

****Ha. Haha. Ahahaha. Career.