On calling yourself bilingual.

So Saturday was the end of Maslenitsa, the week preparatory to Lent, and so you celebrated this by standing in the middle of a freezing cold park in the centre of London, eating very superior blini smothered in smetana and raspberry jam, watching the Star stamp and hop around to the strains of an accordion along with a number of other Russian-speaking families.

And it occurred to you that you might be able to consider yourself bilingual.

It occurred to you, in fact, after the fifth person you were speaking to looked quite shocked when they found out you were British.

‘… but you speak such good Russian!’

Funnily enough, it’s since you left the motherland that your Russian has come on in leaps and bounds.

You think this is because you found the amount of Russian you were bombarded with while you were there was simply too overwhelming and you spent most of your time shutting it out. And not only was there a lot of it, but it was so competently spoken. The shifts you went to to avoid actually having to talk to people and be shown up as a bumbling idiot in the communication department.

Since then, until the Star was born you really only had to put up with your Mother in Law on her periodic month-long visits. Much more non-threatening. And yet it was almost completely impossible to avoid conversations with her, partly because you have never lived in particularly spacious surroundings in the UK, and partly because you were often the one who took her sightseeing. Explaining the many unsavoury moments from Royal history, even with the help of hand gestures, did wonders for your vocabulary as did the arrival of the Star, with whom your Mother in Law has been quite involved. As a result, you keep forgetting what key items of baby equipment are called in English. And of course, there are all the nursery rhymes that you have picked up. There’s a lot to be said for repetition. Previously, you used to accidentally memorise advertising jingles.

Of course, the level of Russian spoken in and around the house has also gone up because B is making a big effort to speak as much Russian with and around the Star. And there’s a lot of repetition there too. Your collection of verbs, always one of your major deficiencies, is coming along nicely. Mainly in the negative (as in don’t touch, don’t throw, don’t kick, don’t run, don’t jump, don’t jump on the bed, don;t jump on me, don’t fall, don’t throw up, don’t throw up on me, don’t cry, don’t shout, don’t scream and don’t do that), but still.

But that was all in the family. It wasn’t until you were back in Russia this summer and actually interacting with the natives that you realised that something had changed. At first, you thought that you had just thrown some of your inhibitions away and were more relaxed about just bludgeoning your message through regardless, but that didn’t explain why you seemed to be understanding more as well.

And lately, you’ve been holding your own amongst the other mothers at the Star’s Russian group.

Who were all also surprised to find that you are not from one of the Baltic republics.

Now you don’t want to overstate your fluency either. The main reason the Russians you meet in the UK don’t immediately assume you are British as soon as you mangle your sdraastvoooooteee  is that the concept of a British woman being married to a Russian man is not one they have come across before. You know this because they tell you so. You have learned not to take the accompanying speculative stare too personally.

You also gather that you are almost unique amongst British spouses in general in being able to speak any Russian at all.

And of course, by the time you reached the park, you have rehearsed any number of times introductions, preliminary personal information exchange, comparing children, admonishing children, cleaning children up, feeding children, playing games with children, and discussing the best way to make sure they learn Russian properly. If the conversation veers wildly into new territory too suddenly, you still can’t keep up very well.

So to be honest, the reason you are thinking you might be allowed to call yourself bilingual isn’t because of how good your Russian is, because in reality it is still quite limited and riddled with horrendous grammar.

But you do use Russian quite a lot these days. And the other day, when you spent a whole day with your brother, it was so very disconcerting not to be able to drop into Russian to make a rude comment about that woman over there’s terrible hairstyle, or have him understand when you and the Star exclaimed over the colour of the crane over there in Russian, or for him to look blank when B came home and the Star told his Papa what he had been doing and you said that actually, no you hadn’t eaten kasha or seen a horse or a shark or broken the toy train, but you had eaten toast, and seen two cats and a really big dog and broken the toy aeroplane.

Before Russian was a matter of survival. Now it is at the heart of your family life, as indispensable as regular rows about the way husbands fling their socks with abandon all over the house. It’s that importance in your life which gives it second language status.

Now you just have to get on and actually learn to speak it properly.


6 thoughts on “On calling yourself bilingual.

  1. is it wrong that this made me giggle? Have I ever said that I love the way you write, it just flows so nicely.

    My S once tried to put down on my CV that I am bilingual because i can speak a bit of French (enough to pass A level equivalent at least) but I quickly made that run away. I would love to go and live in France for a year and truly immerse myself in the language, but alas funds permit me from doing so.

    • If you are a level standard you are almost certainly better than me. It really is only some topics I’m good at, and I can’t really write it.

      So I say go for it!

  2. It sounds like your Russian skills are something to be very proud of, even if you’re not satisfied yet! How lovely that it is “at the heart of your family life.” I can’t say that about my French speaking, because it isn’t something I share with my husband.

    • Actually, it’s a great side effect that me getting on board with the Russian input means that I speak a lot more Russian with B. He’s a very good language learner, and I think he has seen my really slooooooooow progress as a bit of a personal slight sometimes.

      Us all talking to the Star is about my level though and it is helping me to get comfortable.

      Of course, my claim is that it’s because he’s an appalling teacher. Which he is.

  3. I am one of those Baltic people, but I cannot speak Russian 😐 I can understand general chit chat, but despite over 10 years of having to learn it at school, I am unable to speak it. Maybe the three languages I do speak take up all the space in my brain???? 🙂

    • Well, I did realise when people first started asking if I’m from the Baltic states/ Serbia/ Poland that they were not complimenting me on my accent, but commenting on the fact that I was speaking a language that sounded like Russian but that they didn’t understand me. I have moved on from that, though they still don’t understand me in the Moscow McDonald’s. The shame.

      Course, that doesn’t work for Estonian.

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