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Talking to children in their native language

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Talking to children in their native language


Sergey Vinogradov

Russian language courses are being reopened in colleges and universities of Canada after the scope of Russian-language education having been scaled down for 10 to 15 years. Tatyana Kruglikova, the principal of the Gramota Russian School in Montreal, told it to the Russkiy Mir. The school welcomes children of compatriots, for whom Russian is the native language, as well as children from mixed families, for whom the major one is still English or French; and their parents study in groups for elder students.

Over the quarter century of the Russian school’s existence, teachers have developed their own methods of teaching Russian language for polilinguals, which are based on long-term observations of students. Presentation of the textbook for fifth graders, published by the Gramota School teachers team with the support of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, was quite an event for Russian schools in many countries. Tatyana Kruglikova spoke about key elements of teaching Russian in the Gramota School, about students and their parents who have attended the school over 25 years, Russian-speaking buses in Montreal and the Russian Civilization course for Canadians.

Knowledge Day at the Gramota School. Photo credit:

Language of communication

Tatyana, who is the textbook intended for? And what is special about it?

We have published a textbook for 5th grade students living abroad, that is, outside the Russian language environment. The publication has been prepared for schools such as ours - Saturday and supplemental schools, which do not have a lot of teaching hours. And our textbook includes elements of Russian written and Russian spoken language (in Russia this discipline is called "Speech Development"). Plus, the textbook is designed to fit the topics that children learn in literature classes at our school. For many years we have been writing our Russian language and literature textbooks, which correspond to our students level of knowledge. Due to the fact that the teaching hours are a few, we cannot fully comply with the Russian school curriculum, and we have to remove the most basic items from it. Moreover, those are the main items that are necessary for children living in a different language environment

Let me say a few words about key elements of our textbook. Children learn, perform various tasks, including games, and solve crosswords with it. It is written entirely in Russian; there are no explanations in other languages. The textbook is designed for Russian-speaking children. We understand that our students Russian is limited due to external factors, but children are able to understand tasks in the textbook and improve their language skills. Such a textbook was necessary, and, as it turned out, not only for us - Russian schools in different countries became interested in it. Currently we are preparing a textbook for the 6th grade; it already exists and has been tested by teaching students for several years.

How much does the publication reflect the observations of Russian-speaking children in Montreal made by you and your colleagues?

Of course, they all were reflected. In general, the textbook did not develop from top to bottom, but from bottom to top. It has been written solely on the basis of our long-term observations and experience. We tried to use several ranges of textbooks, including textbooks for national schools, but there was no full compliance with our requirements. Most textbooks teach language as a system, as a science, but our children need language as a functionality - primarily for communication. Therefore, we removed obsolete words that may not be understood by children. The textbook is based exclusively on modern Russian language, but no slang by any means.

It is believed that modern Russian language suffers from English loan words and borrowings from other languages. Do you try to use such proximity in class?

No, it is the other way around. In textbooks and in the classroom, we do our best to clear Russian language from English loan words, because these children need as much Russian vocabulary as possible. English and French are their everyday environment.

Does your school ban communicating in English or French?

This is not a ban, but rather a rule. We mostly teach French-speaking children. They sometimes speak French and English at the school. It mostly happens with elder children. From the eighth grade, it becomes easier for them to communicate with peers on some topics in the language they speak at their schools. We cannot vehemently oppose it, but we follow up - gently intervene and translate the conversation into Russian.

Tatyana Kruglikova. Photo credit:

"Russian mentality cannot be washed out by resettlement"

Children come to you on Saturdays after a long schooling week. How to make them come with desire and not under pressure?

It is a complicated question. Five days a week they go to a local school, and studies in Canadian schools are designed in such a way that children spend almost the whole day there. It is arranged so for convenience of adults, as they can pick up children after work. Of course, children get tired. We have no difficulties with preschool children, they love coming on Saturdays. There are many students who consciously come to our school - they are interested, they have friends here. Those are mostly high school students. Children from elementary school may initially come without desire, but then they get involved. The most difficult category is middle school students, for whom we write our textbooks. They are no longer babies, and do not always want to listen to the opinions of their parents. On the other hand, they have hobbies, for example, computer games. Therefore, we not only give knowledge, but also distract them from bad habits.

We do a lot to motivate children to come to our school. For that purpose, our learning process is wrapped up in several colorful wrappers. The first one is an interesting textbook with a lot of game elements, the second one is a teacher with a proper mindset who does not give lectures to children, but is a kind of animator motivating them to make their own discoveries. And the third point is the project activity, including interdisciplinary. Children solve interesting problems, in a group and on their own. They constantly face some kind of challenges. When work on projects captivates children, they are inspired to do their homework and go to school like a breeze.

Graduation concert. Photo credit:

What do you answer to those who advocate for full linguistic and cultural assimilation? They say: the child was born in Canada and is likely to live the life in this country, why does s/he need Russian?

We, parents of our students and our graduates feel to be Russian by mentality, culture, and worldview. It is not washable by any relocation to another country. And we want to convey this feeling to our children. I'm not talking about desire to talk to your children in their native language. You know, when you come home and hear how your son or daughter speaks English to you, this is not very pleasant. Some people put up with this and switch to communication in English, often being not proficient in it. This whole situation causes heartache to me personally. Why to destroy the treasure (language, culture, traditions) which is inherent in you? That is the reason I have been performing this work for many years - I see that there is a need in it. Having established the school 25 years ago, we thought that it would operate for about ten years, not more. But it is the third generation that brings their children to us, and number of students keeps increasing.

Graduates picnic. Photo credit:

Canada speaks Russian

Have Russian-speaking parents and children somehow changed over the past quarter century?

Yes, they have, very much. In the 1990s, our compatriots came here from many different places and for a variety of reasons. They were still absolutely Soviet-era people, who mostly did not understand where they had come to. For them, any foreign country was just a placer gold mine inhabited by millionaires. Those people who come to Canada right now perfectly understand that life is not all honey here: climate is tough, employment conditions are very harsh, and it is necessary to overcome enormous difficulties - learn a language, retrain for another profession. They are more adequate to what they see and where they live, and children are raised adequately.

Now lets talk about the children. At first glance, they are ordinary Canadian children, but due to the fact that parents (or one parent) have been speaking Russian with them from the cradle, share about Russia, cook crepes and pelmeni (meat dumplings), the Russian language matrix is formed in children. Our task is to pull out this matrix and enrich it with rules of Russian language and vocabulary.

Is it possible to classify parents who bring their children to a Russian school by education, profession or other criteria?

This task is quite difficult to do. People of scientific professions or the business elite rarely come to Canada, unlike Germany and a number of other countries. So scientists, top managers or freelancers represent not more than 10% of our students parents. I mean by occupation. People may be candidates of physical and mathematical sciences, but here they become truckers or workers. People manage the way they are able.

In case of classification by geography, we teach children of immigrants from all republics of the Soviet Union, most of all from Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Quite a lot of parents from Russian-Canadian families bring their children to us. We try to make sure that children who sometimes speak three or four languages ​​love Russian. It helps a lot when a child visits a grandmother in Russia for a couple of months. Any communication within Russian-speaking environment helps. We also try to create possibilities for such communication - for example, we send our children to Artek, arrange a lot of events, and now we are preparing for the New Year celebration.

Visit of veterans to school. Photo credit:

Is Russian speech exotic or a usual thing in Montreal?

Certainly, it has not been exotic for a long time now. There was a Russian-language program on local television, but it was closed because it is no longer subsidized. There is Russian Internet television, many sites, a network of Russian businesses - for example, Russian shops, where local residents come to do shopping with great pleasure, thanks to the range of products. Russian speech can be easily heard on the streets, in transport, for example, in a bus from areas with a denser Russian-speaking population. You feel in them just if you were in Moscow - everyone around speaks Russian.

How developed is the network of Russian-language courses in Montreal?

Montreal is a university city. There are four major universities located here. And previously there were Slavic departments with teachers and programs designed for different levels of language proficiency in each of them. Two universities taught courses of Russian history and literature. There were academic colleges where Russian was also taught. At a certain point in the 2000s, this whole system began to collapse. Then there was a crisis in the country and Russian was not the only language affected. For example, German got affected as well. The ministry decided to develop English, French and Spanish, and the rest of languages were considered optional. Currently the situation is beginning to change, also in regard to Russian. Some colleges and universities are reviving courses. To be honest, for now teaching is limited to the beginners level.

There are Russian language courses for adults in the Gramota School. Who attends them?

Those who are interested in Russian culture and strive to go to Russia. We have been doing this for 25 years, and the flow is quite large. Currently we have five groups, from January there will be the sixth one - there are people of different nationalities; they are from 18 to 80 years old. For the second year we have been conducting Russian civilization classes; this was my dream. We are teaching a Russian history course in French, and it also includes information about Russian literature, music and ballet. Many people come from mixed families, those who are married to Russian wives or husbands and are the parents of our students. They want to speak the language they hear at home.

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