I am moving here my old post from a discontinued blog, mostly in response to comments from Adrienne to Dyslexia, dyscalculia, tone deafness.


My  most important AHA moment of my life happened when I was six years old and was caused by this book.

This was my first book. The transition from а non-reading illiterate state to fluent reading happened in me in one click. I took the book, looked at the picture on the cover and suddenly realised that the title could mean only Под грибом, Under the mushroom, and nothing else. I was surprised; I looked again, and, since I knew letters of the alphabet, I managed to check that, indeed, it was Под грибом because the letters were П, О, Д, Г, Р, И, Б, O, M. Quite excited by my discovery, I opened the book and red it from the beginning to the end, in one go. Then I came to my mother and informed her that I had just read a book. “Really?” asked my mother without much surprise. I opened the book and red it to my mother. Prior to this incident, I knew the letters but could not decipher a single word.

Next day, I went to the local library, registered as a user and borrowed a few books. I do not remember their titles. But I remember the first book. I found its text on the internet:

Владимир Григорьевич Сутеев


Как-то застал Муравья сильный дождь.

Куда спрятаться?

Увидел Муравей на полянке маленький грибок, добежал до него и спрятался под его шляпкой.

Сидит под грибом — дождь пережидает.

А дождь идёт всё сильнее и сильнее…

Ползёт к грибу мокрая Бабочка:

— Муравей, Муравей, пусти меня под грибок! Промокла я — лететь не могу!

— Куда же я пущу тебя? — говорит муравей. — Я один тут кое-как уместился.

— Ничего! В тесноте, да не в обиде.

Пустил Муравей Бабочку под грибок.

А дождь ещё сильнее идёт…

Бежит мимо Мышка:

— Пустите меня под грибок! Вода с меня ручьём течёт.

— Куда же мы тебя пустим? Тут и места нет.

— Потеснитесь немножко!

Потеснились — пустили Мышку под грибок.

А дождь всё льёт и не перестаёт…

Мимо гриба Воробей скачет и плачет:

— Намокли перышки, устали крылышки! Пустите меня под грибок обсохнуть, отдохнуть, дождик переждать!

— Тут места нет.

— Подвиньтесь, пожалуйста!

— Ладно.

Подвинулись — нашлось Воробью место.

А тут Заяц на полянку выскочил, увидел гриб.

— Спрячьте, — кричит, — спасите! За мной Лиса гонится!..

— Жалко Зайца, — говорит Муравей. — Давайте ещё потеснимся.

Только спрятали Зайца — Лиса прибежала.

— Зайца не видели? — спрашивает.

— Не видели.

Подошла Лиса поближе, понюхала:

— Не тут ли он спрятался?

— Где ему тут спрятаться!

Махнула Лиса хвостом и ушла.

К тому времени дождик прошёл — солнышко выглянуло. Вылезли все из-под гриба — радуются.

Муравей задумался и говорит:

— Как же так? Раньше мне одному под грибом тесно было, а теперь всем пятерым место нашлось!

— Ква-ха-ха! Ква-ха-ха! — засмеялся кто-то.

Все посмотрели: на шляпке гриба сидит Лягушка и хохочет:

— Эх, вы! Гриб-то…

Не досказала и ускакала.

Посмотрели все на гриб и тут догадались, почему сначала одному под грибом тесно было, а потом и пятерым место нашлось.

А вы догадались?

My book is my attempt to point to some basic structures of human mind responsible for mathematical cognition. In particular, I try to emphasise the role of innate parsing mechanisms in doing symbolic mathematics. I feel that the proverbial three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic have much in common. The principal reason why I am writing my book is that feeling of AHA which I first experienced at age of six, when I suddenly discovered that a parser for processing of typed text got assembled in my brain and was ready for use. It was exactly the same feeling as in doing mathematics, many years later.

And now I want to say something bold: I strongly believe that my experience of learning to read is normal in the sense that this is how children should learn reading and mathematics. It was made possible by a very supportive environment I enjoyed in my child years. Innumeracy exists because millions of children have no sufficiently supportive environment for their cognitive development. Dyslexia is a plague of the British education system because, with the idiosyncratic English spelling, it is simply impossible to create an uniform system of teaching to read which would not damage certain number of children.

In my next post, I will try to tell more about learning / teaching to read in Russian and in English, this time using, as an example, the story of how Anna and I taught our children to read. Here is one of the texts: Skazka o rybake i rybke. I’ll comment on it later.


Blogger Leo said…
Brings back memories… I don’t remember what my first book was, but that story was definitely read to/by me at one point.

As a speaker of Russian, English and Hebrew, and an amateur student of linguistics, let me make a bold claim: English spelling isn’t all that crazy, and isn’t really more difficult than Russian or Hebrew.

So why do Americans seem to have trouble spelling? One explanation is certainly cultural. In Russia (well, former USSR), poor orthography was quite a social stigma — a sure sign of low education. In America, where people regularly get away with misplacing the apostrophe in `its’ and writing ‘definately’, proper spelling just seems not that big of a deal. The ubiquitous spellcheckers all but obviate the need to learn the rules of English orthography — which are actually quite logical if one is willing to look closely.

Speven Pinker, in The Language Instinct, makes a convincing case for preserving English spelling in its current state. Rather than reforming the system, he encourages people to understand its not-too-complicated rules — a proposal I wholeheartedly endorse. A word like `night’ has a perfectly logical reason for being written that way: in Middle English the /gh/ was actually pronounced (much like in doGHouse, or modern Ukrainian г). If one learns to recognize that /gh/ as an unmistakeable Germanic signature of the phoneme /k/ in certain combinations (Latin: noct-, Germanic: night; Latin: rect-, Germanic: right) — all of a sudden the rules don’t seem so crazy after all. [This is not to imply that English evolved from Latin; they are both derived from a common Indo-European ancestor.]

Need I remind you of the myriad quirks of Russian spelling? Starting from unstressed vowels (безударные гласные), alternating a/o, and so forth. Hebrew spelling too has some complications — mostly stemming from the fact that there are a few letter pairs that used to have distinct pronunciations that are now phonetically indistinguishable. These are, roughly:
א vs ע,
ח vs כ
ט vs ת
ס vs ש
ב vs ו.
(I’m glossing over the fact that certain Hebrew dialects preserve some of the distinctions.) The point is there are logical rules governing these as well; a linguist might describe them in terms of phonetic features (e.g., gutturals don’t geminate and require vowel assimilation), but a proficient Hebrew speaker has no problem internalizing them just as efficiently as his Russian or English counterpart would.

The moral of the story is that languages all seem to have roughly the same level of acquisition for a native speaker; there are almost certainly evolutionary reasons for this.

27/12/06 3:37 AM
Anonymous migmit said…
+1 leo.
You possibly know, I’m not a good English speaker, but it’s orthography doesn’t seem complicated for me. Of course, it’s quite different from Russian (even transliterated) and, say, German ones, but the artifical “European English” orthography (I think, you know this famous joke?) is much uglier.

27/12/06 6:57 AM
Blogger Alexandre Borovik said…
By all means, I do not call for the abolition of traditional English orthography. As a teacher, I am prepared to live with its consequences.

Russian orthography is also not phonetically precise (although to much smaller degree than the English one). As a child, I had (and perhaps still have) a noticeable “bookish” accent, tendency to pronounce words the way they were written (for example, что instead of the correct pronunciation што).

For me, the most shocking of the recent cultural developments in Russia was the emergence of the language of scum, языка падонков, more and more noticeable on the Russian Internet. It is Russian spelled with an exaggerated phonetic precision and intentional deviation from the traditional orthography. It carries a powerful message of unhinged aggression; it is a linguistic equivalent of a shaven head, blood-red eyes, gold teeth and a huge tatoo on the hairy chest. Not surprisingly, язык падонков happened to be exceptionally convenient — and much used — for creation of new terms of racist and antisemitic abuse (ф топку!).

In English, an intentional deviation from the traditional spelling (Krunchy Kream) is not a sign of a break from all social norms. In Russian, it is a deliberate manifestation of a utter contempt for every possible rule and law. It is a cancer of Russian culture.

27/12/06 12:04 PM
Anonymous migmit said…
You are not right.
“Ф топку!” isn’t racist or antisemitic; usually, it’s just antiidiotic. The meaning is about the same as one of “в биореактор!” – see “http://www.antigreen.org/bioreactor/”
Of course, I don’t like “padonki’s language”, but to be honest, it has nothing to do with racism.

28/12/06 7:42 AM
Blogger Alexandre Borovik said…
I would perhaps prefer to refrain from further exampes.

28/12/06 5:38 PM
Anonymous Emma said…
My Dad (Chris Hobbs) encouraged me to read this – and I found it very interesting. I’m English, but have learnt German (quite a lot) and Russian (a bit). I find German and Russian both quite easy to “guess” the pronounciation – but with Russian I need the help of a marked accent (as in text books for foreigners). Being able to say the words gave me a lot of confidence in learning the languages – I could read even if I couldn’t understand.

My son is now 3 weeks old – so a while before I have to worry about teaching him to read. I hope he finds it as straightforward as you did – even with the idiosynchrocies of English.

My own Aha moment with maths happened at A’level – for some reason I found A’level “mechanics” difficult – and always struggled with past papers. Until the day before the exam – when suddenly something “clicked” – I’ve no idea what: and from then on it was trivial. I wish I knew how I made that transition (apart from by spending a week doing hundreds of examples).

Best wishes,

Emma Woolliams