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Guest Post: If At First You Don’t Succeed, You May Be the Minority Language Parent

I like Dr. Seuss, but I love Dostoyevsky!

In this lively guest post, Tatyana Leskowicz shares a successful strategy for getting a small child to actively use the minority language. (Hint: It has something to do with buckets!)

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.

How about you? What do you think of the “bucket” metaphor for language acquisition and this strategy used by Tatyana?

22 Responses

  1. I’m going to start doing this with my 4 yr old. Thanks for posting.

    I just found out this blog. I’m desperate trying to get my two boys to talk in Spanish.

  2. Good luck Jazzy.

    Just remember to supply your son with extra opportunity to practice the phrase of the week. Stand a little farther away than normal when visiting playgrounds to learn “come here”. Start with the least favorite option when learning yes and no.

    It takes a lot of effort to get them to start talking, but once they do you’ll be amazed at how quickly they go from very simple Spanish to very complex.

  3. It is such a great tactic, Tatyana! Start small even on the big task. I was completely in your situation when I thought it is just enough to speak to my son Russian and he will speaking it too. But even with three years of being in Russian and Ukrainian-speaking country his language began diminishing. And I used the tactic you described: pretending that I don’t understand him in English. Also I used “golden moments”—it is when he really wanted something I literally asked him to say it in Russian. And you are so right that with confidence that he can say it, came a wish to say even more. Thank you for sharing your ideas!

    1. Olena, thanks for adding this helpful comment. It sounds like you’ve also experienced success with this approach. Good for you!

  4. I think it’s an excellent metaphor! It helped me visualise the progress we make in speaking Greek – I do persevere but realise that it will take a lot longer unfortunately. I also think that the ability to form sentences (in any language) is more pressing than the ability to speak in a minority language as I see the frustration in my two year old when he can’t communicate something to us. I just keep on exposing him to Greek so he won’t lose the connection.

    1. Lia, it sounds like you’re making good efforts with your son. The key, as Tatyana describes, is a kind of “playful persistence.” Keep at it, day after day, and I expect you’ll see progress over time.

    2. Lia, I know exactly how you feel. My youngest is just starting to talk and the joy of being able to communicate with your child in any language is so overwhelming. The idea that your child can now say that she wants apple sauce overshadows the fact that it’s in the wrong language. After the newness wears off, though, it’s important to get back on track. Try to ignore the fact that the majority language is developing so much faster and keep plugging away. He’ll eventually get it and a year or two down the line you’ll be amazed at how much he truly is learning now, even though he’s not demonstrating it to you just yet.

  5. Tatyana, I also really like the imagery of the bucket. It is the same for our languages, for math, for naming countries, for knowing authors, etc. Everything requires sufficient input to be able to generate output. I work in a bilingual school and will share this metaphor with our teachers. It will help them better imagine the value of what they do each day. Thanks!

    1. Annie, yes, it’s true in many aspects of life: without sufficient input, we can’t expect satisfactory output. I hope Tatyana’s “bucket metaphor” will be helpful to the teachers and children at your school.

    2. Annie, thank you for your comment. It’s amazing to know that I’ve made an impact on others, especially bilingual educators. You guys are my heroes. It’s tough enough getting one child to fluency but to get a class full of kids there is simply incredible.

  6. Well I remember the frustration as my very lovely French in-laws would be silently but noticeably disappointed that our two little boys couldn’t rattle off in French at the breakfast table, despite the energy and commitment my husband had put in from birth, on top of a grueling work schedule. This led us 4 years into the journey, with two little boys in tow, to move to the French-speaking region of Switzerland, leaving England behind. It has obviously delivered the bilingual children that we both dreamt of, but now of course it is my responsibility, as the English-speaking mother, to ensure that their English “bucket” is filled up to the brim each and every day as we’ve switched minority languages! My husband was amazing but this new lifestyle has taken the pressure off him and onto me. I relish nearly every opportunity to speak, laugh, play, recite poetry, create reading and writing tasks for them to do. With our boys being the older ages of 5 and 7, my opinion is that the constant variety and excitement of change of tasks and expectations, keeps them on their toes. Thanks to this website I feel the hand of friendship and support on this often tricky but very exciting ride.

    1. Abi, thanks so much for sharing your story, and for your kind words. I applaud you and your husband on all the proactive steps you’ve taken to date (not the least of which was moving to another country!), and I’ll continue to cheer on your efforts in your role as minority language parent.

  7. Thank you for this article and for an alternative method of making bilingual children to reply in a minority language. It is very interesting that only this morning I was thinking about this. My toddler is getting big enough to understand that he is being understood when he requests things in his majority language. My first idea was to tell him that I understand him only in the minority language, but that would be a lie. I will try your strategy, Tatyana.

  8. Good luck Maria,
    Just remember that “refusing to accept a request” can be a lot of things, and you should pick a way that you can feel comfortable with for the long haul. Some people can pretend to not understand the child. At the end I didn’t have the heart to do that. I just made my daughter repeat the things she said in the wrong language. First I’d provide the Russian version to repeat and when I had confidence she knew it, she just needed a gentle reminder to use the right language.

  9. Dear Tatiana,

    I started doing the same thing with the languages we speak in our home. I have felt very rewarded. My kids are all learning better. I am having some difficulty in helping our children to learn and speak Russian. My husband speaks Russian, but they do not get much time with him. I do not know hardly any Russian. He has been making more effort with our 4 year old. Now about the rest of our children. Well, it was great to see that you have made such great strides with this method.Thanks for sharing!

    1. Ellen, I’m glad to see that you’re seeing good progress as well. I know how hard it is to have the language carrier be away from home because of work sometimes. One of my biggest regrets is working lots of weekends when my girl was in that critical period of starting to speak. But even so, I think it’s doable as long as the parent doesn’t give up and goes at it with lots of small but consistent efforts.

  10. Tatyana, I really liked your post. Buckets really gives you an idea of what you mean. I really appreciate the part where you say that ““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.” So true… When people hear my daughter speaking the minority language, they say, “Well, it’s easy for her…” They don’t know all the effort and work that parents put into this project!!!

  11. I am SO GRATEFUL to you for this post! This is just what I needed as an inspiration! Although my situation differs greatly from yours—we are a monolingual family. But I speak English fluently and always wanted my kids to speak English earlier and better than they could learn at school. I spoke English a lot to my older son (he was born in the UK and we moved to Poland when he was 1,5 yo) and even though we live in Poland and for years I have been his only source of English, he (now 8 yo) understands a lot. (He replies mainly in Polish, but if he tries really hard his English replies happen as well.)

    However, my younger son did not do that well and by the time he was 2 yo he refused to respond to English and kept telling me to “speak normally” (that is, in Polish) to him. And at some point I gave up—which I now totally regret… He is now 5,5 yo and I thought that it’s now far too late to try to get him to at least learn the basics. BUT now your post has given me hope. 🙂 I realise that he is now too old for me to simply ignore his Polish replies, but I think he is big enough to agree to a conscious “game” of using English only in some areas (only a few to start with, eg. food, brushing teeth, getting dressed etc). I will try to make an agreement with him. 🙂 Especially that he often hears me speaking English to his brother and always feels lost in these situations. I guess he may find it tempting to at some point be able to understand those conversations, too. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. It’s really incredible to think that all my early struggles and the lessons I learned from them give people hope.

      I think talking selectively in English would work very well for a child, even as old as yours. I’ve known several people who use a minority language for common phrases at 6-7 years old. The key I think is to try your very best to not do too much at the same time. Even slow progress is better than a child who is stressed by the changes and rejects the whole thing. Unfortunately, at 5, kids are old enough to reject new things. But they’re also old enough to watch cartoons (English with Polish subtitles if possible) and play more complicated games, or even to be negotiated with.

      Best of luck to you!

      1. Thank you!

        P.S. It is true that 5-year-olds are prone to reject new things, but they also tend to be very enthusiastic about learning, especially if they can experience the immediate result (in this case: communication) of their effort – so I am optimistic and keen to give us a chance!

  12. Tatyana, thank you for this post. You are describing my situation precisely, only I’m afraid my two year old knows even fewer Russian words than yours did, and with the exception of “pit'” (drink) and “maslo” (butter) she NEVER says anything in Russian.

    There is hope for us. You’re pulling me out of my despair. I almost gave up.

    Thank you.

  13. Great guest post! Thank you Tatyana! How did I come to miss out on it? The bucket analogy is brilliant and so accurate. And so is that half-truth. I began this journey on the same mistaken foundation. :). It would be lovely if you would take up Adam’s offer (on the Bilingual Zoo) for a sequel to this guest post and let us know how things have moved on since this post was written. 🙂

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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