Tatyana, born in Russia to Russian parents, now lives in the United States with her American husband and their two daughters, ages 4 and 1. They follow the OPOL (one person-one language) approach in their home, with Tatyana speaking Russian and her husband speaking English.
Be sure to also read Tatyana’s Thank You Letter from a Bilingual Child, a lovely post in which she reflects on her own upbringing as a bilingual child and thanks her parents for their efforts.
Any child of mine will be bilingual in the womb. How could they not? If I can become fluent in four languages, surely they can master just two by the time they’re born. All right, maybe I was being overly ambitious. I understand that children don’t come out speaking, but surely we’ll be chatting in Russian about the merits of Dostoyevsky by the time they turn five.
Alas, my modest expectations were not being met as I faced my daughter, then two and a half, who told me in perfect English that she wanted strawberries.
No Dostoyevsky, no Russian, not even a request for borscht to soothe my wounded ego.
Half-truth and misdirection
The foundation on which I had built the plan for my bilingual family was simple:
“Small children can learn multiple languages effortlessly from birth.”
You hear it on every street corner. Even people who know nothing about language acquisition know this one fundamental truth. Except it turns out that it isn’t actually true. It’s a half-truth, with a bit of misdirection mixed in for good measure.
The half-truth: A child’s bilingual journey can in fact be effortless, but only in a community where the two languages are balanced, like Quebec, parts of Belgium, and other truly bilingual places. Not in middle American where the only source of the minority language is…me.
The misdirection: The statement above conveniently neglects to mention the effort involved on the part of the parent. A lack of effort will lead only to a child who wants strawberries in the majority language.
Expectations and reality
So there I was, thinking that if I simply spoke to my daughter in Russian, from birth, that I would produce a bilingual toddler. But by the time she was two and a half, it was obvious that this wouldn’t be the case.
When she began speaking, about 70% of her words were in English and 30% were in Russian.
By age two, she was making simple sentences in English, but in Russian she was still only using nouns.
By two and a half, she had stopped mixing Russian into her English, but when trying to speak Russian with me, she would use English and plop in Russian nouns: “I want strawberries” became “I want klubnika.”
As her knowledge of English grew stronger, her acquisition of Russian slowed and she became less willing to use the words she knew: “I want klubnika” reverted back to “I want strawberries.”
I’m sure I’m not the only parent in the world who has faced this dilemma.
Two different skills
“My child refuses to speak the minority language.”
We’ve all heard this one before. There are always a few parents who would have had bilingual children if only their kids had been a little more cooperative. But this, too, I think, is a lie.
I asked my daughter: Why don’t you use Mama’s language? You don’t love me? You don’t like my language? You don’t want to speak it?
Her response was plain: She couldn’t. She wanted to, but she just couldn’t.
I will admit that anything that came out of my daughter’s mouth, as a toddler, must be taken with a grain of salt. She did, after all, insist that there was a horsey in her tummy for nine months at that age.
In this case, though, I think she was really on to something. I had been foolish to assume that just because she understood Russian well, she would be able to speak it well, too.
Understanding and speaking are two very different skills that develop at different times. Not having a skill isn’t the same thing as refusing to use it. Thinking that a child who isn’t speaking the minority language is making a conscious choice will simply lead to a nerve-wracking battle of wills, and probably in the wrong language.
Buckets of language
To me, language acquisition is like filling a bucket.
The child is that bucket. The water being poured in is the language exposure the child receives. The water that finally overflows from the bucket is the language that the child produces. For the water to eventually overflow—for the child to actively produce language—you must first pour in a significant amount of water, filling it to capacity. And this isn’t a thimble or a pot—it’s an industrial-sized bucket.
What happens, then, when a child is made up of two buckets, two languages? What happens when the language exposure poured into one bucket—for the majority language—fills up that bucket at a much faster rate?
Speech in the majority language will be produced more quickly, and in greater quantity.
Depending on the rate at which the minority language is filling up the second bucket, you may even begin to wonder if it’s a bucket at all and maybe just a bottomless pit.
I think this is where many parents become discouraged to the point where they abandon this “defective bucket” and focus instead on the overflowing “wonder bucket” of the majority language.
This is also the point where children start to abandon their own attempts to use the minority language. Why bother when the majority language is now much stronger? After all, they’re just as eager to discuss Dostoyevsky, or at the very least, Dr. Seuss.
Drilling some holes
So here’s what I did in either a fit of desperation or a stroke of brilliance: I drilled holes in the sides of my Russian bucket to allow the water in there to come out more quickly.
How did I drill these holes? By using rote memorization.
Wait, it’s not as dreadful as it sounds. A toddler’s communication is really not that complicated. It all boils down to wanting food, toys, and for Mama to come and watch.
I realized that with just a dozen or so memorized phrases her use of Russian with me would skyrocket to around 80%. Maybe this is akin to training a monkey to do tricks, but at that point I was desperate for anything, even a monkey, as long as it would speak Russian.
We started small, with yes and no: da and nyet. Each morning I’d present her clothes and ask what she wanted to wear.
Me: (in Russian) Do you want the Tinker Bell underwear?
Her: (in English) Yes.
Me: (in Russian) Oh, you don’t? What a shame! How about this pair with animals?
Her: (in English) No.
Me: (in Russian) You do? Great, here you go!
Her: (now in Russian) NYET!
Me: (in Russian) Nyet? Oh, sorry, I thought you said “da.” You’d rather wear the Tinkerbell underwear?
Her: (in Russian) DA!
Me: (in Russian) Great! Now, how about some pants…
This went on for a week, and by the end of that week, my toddler-monkey was firmly using two Russian words. It may not sound like much, but this was the first glimmer of hope for our bilingual project.
Then we moved on to phrases like (imagine the Russian) “Come here,” “Food ready?”, and “Good” in response to “How was your day?”
The toughest one was “I want (a food or toy).” This one took us several months because it required that she bring in different nouns, too.
Every week or so we added new phrases for which Mama would no longer accept the English equivalents.
Her willingness to speak Russian grew. She saw that the Russian bucket did in fact hold some water and she wasn’t afraid to try a little harder. My own frustration decreased, too. I no longer felt like the bad language cop in every exchange we had. Each week brought new successes to motivate us further.
Her bucket overflows
About six months into this experiment, I noticed something very encouraging: she had begun breaking up her memorized phrases into their components. “Food ready?” became “Dinner ready?” Her response to “How was your day?” wasn’t always “good”—it was reflecting her real feelings.
Instead of merely knowing nouns and plopping them into English sentences, she learned a few Russian verbs to form a foundation for grammar. These may have been limited to things like “come,” “want,” “eat,” and “play,” but it was definitely a start.
A few months after she turned four, almost two years after this effort began, her minority language bucket finally filled up and started to overflow. Her grammar was still mangled, but she had gradually made the switch to speaking to me purely in Russian.
It’s been six months since then, and now it feels like Russian has always been the language of our relationship.
I’ve also learned to scale down my expectations. We won’t be discussing Dostoyevsky when she turns five—we’ll probably be discussing Disney. After all, certain developmental steps have to happen on her timetable, not mine. I just have to hang in there and keep hope alive until the day she’s ready.