On activating the passive.

So the BBC Russian Service has put up another blog post of mine, and so here it is in all it’s untranslated glory.

The really difficult thing about bringing up bilingual children is getting them to speak the minority language, the language which they do not hear around them on the street, in shops, at school, round their friends’ houses, every day. In our case, we live in the UK and that minority language is Russian.

There are a number of reasons for this difficulty. Older children might want to fit in with their monolingual peers, for example. But I think one of the main problems is getting the kids to see that learning two languages is not just a rather pointless bit of busywork. After all, Mama and Papa speak both languages. Why bother to make the effort to remember how to say it in Russian when you can speak to them in English and be understood, the language that is also useful outside the home if you want to get random people to tell you interesting stuff like what their dog’s name is?

The problem is compounded because bilinguals, and children in particular, often fix on just one language to use with the people they interact with regularly. If they have decided that Papa is someone they speak to in English it can be very hard, and stressful for the child, to shake that person-language bond. No matter how much Papa sulks about it.

This is why I am very pleased, smug even, that at four years old my son seems as happy to chatter away in Russian as in English. It was not a forgone conclusion, particularly as I am the main caregiver, and that means my children get an extra dose of English from me, in addition to the hours of English language TV they watch… sorry, the amount of English they unavoidably hear as we go about our everyday business.

So how did we do it? I offer to the world at large some tips on how to ensure that your child will continually pester his parents for a new toy car all afternoon in both languages.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, it helps to have a babushka who does not speak any English whatsoever, and who comes to stay for extended periods of time. If you are a small boy, there is nothing like needing to ask for a banana in Russian in order to get what you want to get you to actually do it. It also has the added bonus that a lot more Russian gets spoken in the home too when she is staying because my innate laziness wars with the rudeness of speaking a language babushka doesn’t understand in front of her and frequently loses. This has also been excellent for my own Russian language skills.

The danger there, though, is that speaking Russian becomes a sort of weird family quirk, with no relevance to the real world outside the home. Also, there’s a limit to the range of contexts you might want to boss your babushka about in, and therefore a limit to the range of structures and vocabulary you get to use. This is why it is also helpful that, living in London as we do, there are actually quite a lot of other Russian people about, and many of them have kids the same age as my son. We are lucky enough, in fact, to have found a playgroup with a thriving Russian-speaking community attached, a community, in fact, where Russian is the language of choice, rather than a language which people can speak if they want to. So effective was having my son make contacts here, that even when, after babushka had gone home for the summer, he was refusing to speak Russian at home beyond very basic sentences and a whole lot of words for food causing us much consternation and panic, I was astonished and relieved to hear him having quite sophisticated conversations with other children and adults. There are other benefits too, of course. The borsht is excellent. Oh, and the people are very nice too.

Now this was all very well, but my husband was still left with the agonising situation that his eldest son wouldn’t speak his language with him. At this point, can I recommend having another baby, and making it a summer birth? Because it became the perfect opportunity to pack my husband and son off to Moscow for a month without me, and I am pleased to report that after a month of total immersion into Russian life, with no English language distractions aside from a nightly phone call, my son had shifted the person-language bond with his Papa from English to Russian, much to everyone’s relief. A month of exclusive Russian, getting to speak Russian in the street, in restaurants, in shops, at the theatre, the zoo, the circus, in playgrounds, a variety of datchas and his Papa’s friends’ houses, every day with every person he met also improved his fluency and range out of all recognition too.

So much so that this year my family has decided to do it all over again. Yes, ladies, I now have an unassailable excuse to insist on at least a couple of child-free weeks every year. Except not this time, as we decided that my daughter probably wouldn’t get quite the benefit from the situation at the grand old age of one so she is staying behind with me and learning to moo, say baa and crow like a cockerel in two languages.

Still, there’s always next year.


5 thoughts on “On activating the passive.

  1. Lol, thanks for this funny post! So great that you cracked it in the end… there’s nothing quite like a child realising that a language does, in fact, have a practical application, and is not just some strange whim of mum & dad!

  2. We are in almost the identical situation – my wife’s parents live with us, and I am the only native English speaker in the household among 5 other people (2 uni-lingual Russians, 2 bilingual native Russians and our Canadian-born 5-year-old daughter, Alina). Alina can switch on a sentence-to-sentence basis between languages and has an excellent vocabulary in both. I didn’t realize how lucky we are until I read your post, because it could have been much more difficult.

    Still, there’s no substitute for introducing bilingualism when children are born. Little ones have no concept of how difficult it is and so are not daunted by the prospect, which is half the battle. Also, even if the parent who is fluent in English wants to try and speak Russian, they probably shouldn’t because their accent is appalling even if they don’t realize it. I say so from the viewpoint of that parent, and at first I was a little hurt that my wife discouraged me from speaking Russian to Alina, but in the end it seems good advice, as the child needs to learn to say the words properly.

  3. Thank you all for commenting (she says, late but moving fast). It is always nice to hear from people in the same boat.

    I keep telling my husband he doesn;t want the Star picking up my Russian accent, markensop, but he is not convinced. I shall quote your wife at him.

    And Tallulah, I have sent you an email.

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