Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Speaking two languages (with videos)

David turned 2.5 yrs old last month, and I haven't really written about his development lately...partly because I figure it really isn't that interesting to read about someone else's child month-by-month. :)

But there are some milestone issues I like to address, and since we are raising a bilingual child, that is something to comment on. He has taken a big leap forward from a few months ago.

February sunshine!

One Parent, One Language

It's worked pretty well for Andrei to speak Russian and for me to speak English at home. I had been used to speaking more Russian, but now I can switch back and forth pretty easily and stick to English even when everyone else around is speaking Russian. Like if A. is explaining something to David in Russian, I might jump in and reinforce what he's saying, but in English. It might sound funny to someone listening in, but it works.

David has demonstrated for a while that he knows to use different languages with different people. He has always called Andrei "Papa," but will talk to me about "Daddy," and while he calls me "Mommy," he refers to me as "Mama" to Russian friends and relatives. If he is conversing or even watching TV in one language, he will explain it to the other parent in his/her own language, and so on.

Keeping it Even

David started out speaking more English, but his Russian has caught up, especially with his paternal grandparents speaking only Russian. The problem that will come up in a few years will be how to keep up the English while living in Russia. Attending school will probably skew his preference in one direction. I'm afraid if he doesn't have enough English input, he won't want to use it anymore. I meet a lot of missionary kids who are English dominant, but they tend to have 2 English-speaking parents, and don't attend Russian school. So I'll have to talk to some other cross-cultural families. If we lived in the U.S. at some point we would need to find a Russian-speaking community.

When You're the Minority Parent...

It can be kind of embarrassing and attention-getting to speak your native language with your child in public when you live in a different country. Especially when a tantrum is involved! It's hard because I want to connect with people and I feel like it gets awkward as soon as the English comes out. Sometimes if a babushka or someone comes up and starts talking to him, I talk to them but not to him so I don't have to reveal my other language.

A friend encouraged me not to be embarrassed, because it's a small sacrifice in the long run. A few stares in my direction in exchange for a lifetime of fluency in TWO languages? It might feel awkward to ME, but he is not suffering. Of course it might be rude in certain company, and it's helpful if Andrei or someone else clarifies what I'm saying to other people present so that it doesn't seem so exclusive. As for speaking softly, do I want to send David the message that speaking another language or English in particular is something to be ashamed of? That's something I think about.

We're not in danger here when we speak English. We live in a calm, residential neighborhood. On public transportation people aren't supposed to speak loudly anyway.

But what about social skills? I worried about that, too. I cannot teach David how to properly speak to other Russians...if I tell him what to say, the "one parent, one language" turns into "one parent and only at home where no one can hear." Nor do I read him Russian children's books. He will hear them, just not from me. I am not everything to him; there are other caretakers in his life.

Though D. used to speak English to people on the street, he has now figured out on his own that he needs to speak Russian. So I don't need to worry about that anymore. And he is starting to interact with other kids at church, too. I think he is going to be pretty social, and that's a plus for someone needing to be resilient as he navigates between cultures.

I don't have the perfect example, but here is David interacting recently (on YouTube):

More Russian than English
More English than Russian


  1. The best part of this was the "Oh dear...." in the car video :)

  2. Elizabeth, I came across your posts while surfing the Internet. I am a teacher of the English language and at the moment I'm living in Saint-Petersburg. What you write about your bilingual son is extremely interesting from linguistic point of view! Keep it on and best regards!

  3. Hi Elizabeth,
    First I have have to say David is a very cute little kid. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and videos. It does look to me that his English is a bit better than his Russian, which I see as a good thing, since English is the non-dominant language. Another good thing is that American culture is very popular thoughout the world, so it's easy to find cartoons and books in English pretty much anywhere you go. In our family 80 percent of books we read and cartoons we watch are in English because I feel like it should be given an advantage over Russian (that our daughter is going to learn anyway).
    I have to admit that for the first year and a half I would stick to one parent, one language, but then it became too awkward. I mean, come on, the parents I meet at the playgorund know that I'm Russian, I was feeling embarrassed, and ended up trying to speak more quiet when we were outside. So we discussed it with my husband, and now I speak English to her at home and when we visit her grandparents, but at the playground, or at the kindergarten we speak Russian. I am worried that maybe I'm sending my daughter the wrong message. But again, it's a little different for me, since everyone knows that I'm Russian. I have a question, do people notice your accent (if you have one) when you speak Russian to them?

  4. Those are good questions, and that's a good point that it's easier to keep up with English in other countries because of all the materials available. I think it's okay to speak different languages in different places, since that's what happens in life anyway. But again you have to find a way to balance it out. If there's no real need to use the language, will it get lost? Since you started at birth, hopefully your daughter associates you with English, and will always want to keep up that connection.

    If I don't talk a lot (please and thank you), people might not notice my accent. It's there, but I don't think it's obviously American. One time someone asked if I was from Moldova.

  5. Moldova LOL.
    In your family bilingualism is a lot more natural than it is in ours, and I can already tell the difference now, David is so good at English. Guess I'll have to find a way to catch up.

    1. I think David has an advantage because he is talkative. For other kids it can take time for the words to show up in active vocabulary. Have you checked out the bilingual blogs in my sidebar? (all the way at the bottom) There is one woman who is trying to raise her children to teach French, although she is not a native speaker.

    2. This looks interesting, I'll definitely check it out, thanks.

  6. I think Svetlana's thoughts make sense; you also want David to see that one person can talk in two languages - and even move back and forth, with fluidity, as the social situation requires. Kids are so amazingly resilient, and adaptable. That said, HOW I'd love to have someone speaking Russian to Monnie all the time! Mine is just not good enough....

    1. That's interesting, I hadn't thought of it that way. It is funny to see David's reaction when someone switches, like when my MIL says something in English. Sometimes he tries to "help."


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