When a Parent Is a Child's Only Language Source

How a father started speaking his native language to his English-speaking child.

Posted Nov 13, 2018

Interview conducted by François Grosjean

A short time ago, the title of an article in The New Yorker caught my attention: "Why did I teach my son to speak Russian?" The story the author tells (see here) is both captivating for a psycholinguist who specializes in bilingualism, but also very touching for the father and grandfather that I am. Keith Gessen, novelist, journalist, and academic, relates how he started speaking his native language, Russian, to his English-speaking little boy, Raffi, whose mother knows no Russian.

As he carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, "(he) liked the feeling ... of having our own private language ... Before I knew it, I was speaking to Raffi in Russian all the time, even in front of his mother." Raffi is now three and Keith Gessen has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about how his son is acquiring Russian. His honest testimony shows how challenging it can be to bring up a child bilingual when a working parent is his child's only language source. 

You write that you had doubts, and still do, about teaching Raffi Russian. Can you explain?

I have two main doubts. The first is that my Russian is imperfect. We came to the U.S. when I was six, and though I grew up speaking Russian with my parents, I do not have access to the full range of verbal possibilities—I have fewer words and run out of them faster. I find myself being more impatient and more quickly upset than I would like. This makes me a less than ideal father.

The second doubt is specific to Russia. The best way to teach Raffi Russian would be to take him to Moscow, where I still have some family. But the political situation there is deteriorating; there is more xenophobia and more aggression. It’s not something I necessarily want to expose my family to. I’d be worried about Raffi going to Russia—as I remember my father being worried about me going.

Do you see yourself polishing your Russian up in order to enrich Raffi's own Russian?

My Russian is already improving in that I have to speak in it all the time to Raffi. And as he starts asking more sophisticated questions about the world, I have to try to produce more sophisticated answers. Or at least sensible ones.

I'm impressed by the extensive reading you have done about young bilingual children, including Werner Leopold's four volumes on his own daughter, Hildegard. You recognize that a bilingual child has to have a real need for a language if he/she is to develop it. Can you explain how you are creating this need?  

Reading Leopold’s book (which I first learned about in your book, Bilingual: Life and Reality) was a delight—there was so much that was recognizable to me, and Hildegard is so adorable! I laughed when Leopold recounted his frustration with his polite German émigré friends who immediately switched to English when Hildegard addressed them in English, instead of insisting on German as Leopold himself did.

I’ve found that recently I’ve been able to convince my Russian-speaking family members to switch less often to English with Raffi. I think it feels strange to them at first, because for now he only ever answers in English, but once they see that he understands their Russian perfectly well, they will be able to keep it up.

Another important factor is input, a lot of input, as well as a diversified input. How will you make sure that Raffi gets it in the years to come? 

I read to him in Russian a lot, and will continue to do so. Despite a somewhat exalted reputation, Russian literature for little kids is not as rich as American literature for that age group. But there are some wonderful things, especially the poems of Korney Chukovsky, which Raffi really loves, and there are also translations.

Speaking of translations, we’ve recently discovered a rich treasure trove of Russian-language versions of Western cartoons. On YouTube, you can get “Peppa Pig” in Russian, “Ninja Turtles” in Russian, and even the awful “Paw Patrol” series in Russian. There are also some excellent Soviet-era cartoons on YouTube, but on the whole, they’re a little too slow-moving for someone who’s been exposed to the speed of American cartoons.

Will Raffi soon be going to daycare? If so, were you thinking of finding a Russian-speaking one in New York?

There are many Russian-language daycares in south Brooklyn. Unfortunately, we live in central Brooklyn, and the closest one to us is about a forty-minute train ride away, and in the opposite direction from where I work. In general, there are many opportunities in New York for Russian enrichment that I know I’m not taking advantage of—because I don’t have the time, or the energy, or we’ve got other commitments. But parenting is like that, I am finding. In truth, if I had to choose between teaching Raffi Russian and teaching him to play hockey, I think I’d choose hockey! But maybe I can manage both.

What other strategies were you thinking of to make Russian an important part of Raffi's life and anchoring the language in his mind?

The closest thing to a Russian-only environment within driving distance of us is my father’s house in Massachusetts, and I hope to continue getting Raffi (and now his younger brother, Ilya) there as much as possible.

I must say, even in the past couple of months (approximately since Raffi turned three), he has been finding his Russian to be a source of pride. “Mama,” he now tells his monolingual mother, “I speak Russian and English.” It’s not strictly true that he speaks Russian. His passive vocabulary is large but his active vocabulary is currently about ten words. But the other day we had a Russian-speaking friend over and Raffi started showing off by giving the Russian names for various objects. So he clearly has, at least for the moment, an aspiration to learn Russian better. That seems to me a good start.

The following posts might appeal to those interested in bringing up a child bilingual:

"Planned bilingualism: Five questions to consider"

"Becoming bilingual"

"Nurturing bilingualism in children"

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

References

Gessen, K. (2018). Why did I teach my son to speak Russian. The New Yorker, June 16.

Leopold, W. (1948). The study of child language and infant bilingualism. Word, 4(1), 1-17