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Question about multi-lingual child-rearing
Thread poster: Chris Lovelace

Chris Lovelace  Identity Verified
Argentina
Local time: 19:26
Russian to English
+ ...
Dec 4, 2011

I have a question about multi-lingual child-rearing.

Before I ask that question, here is some background information:

I understood that, in order for children to develop simultaneous fluency in multiple languages, they must be exposed to either "one language per place" or "on language per person." Therefore, I have always spoken Russian to our daughter, while my wife and her parents speak English. Spanish is the predominant language of the country where we reside.

My daughter is two and an half years old. She understands everything I say in Russian,* but almost always responds in English. At least, this is the pattern recently. Previously, she would respond in Russian when the two of us were alone together, but would answer in English when other English-speakers were present.

I would like to break her of this habit, so that she develops the pattern of responding in Russian when someone addresses her in Russian. I have attempted to encourage her to do this by withholding what she is asking for, until she asks in Russian (usually, this happens when she wants me to fetch a toy for her). This is only occasionally successful.

*NOTE: I know that she understands me, because when I offer her something, say "sok" ("juice"), "moloko/moloka" ("milk"), she will respond with the name in English of what I am offering in Russian.

How do I get my two-year-old to respond in Russian when I speak to her in Russian? (Again, note that I ONLY speak to her in Russian, though no one else around us speaks Russian.)

Thank you in advance for your advice.

[Edited at 2011-12-04 21:03 GMT]


 

Vanda Nissen  Identity Verified
Australia
Local time: 10:26
Member (2008)
English to Russian
+ ...
it's hard Dec 4, 2011

Hi Chris,

It's hard, even children born in the Russian families older they get, more they tend to switch into English. Our situation is very similiar to yours: 2 home languages, Russian and Danish, and English for the rest of the world. Our child goes to the Russian Saturday school but unfortunately he already knows very well that mom can speak English:(, I can't pretend that I do not undertand him so yes, he tends to answer in English, although he is using Russian with other Russian-speaking people.

He speaks more Danish because we speak Danish at home (my husband doesn't speak Russian).

So, my only advice for you - pretend that you do not understand her when she speaks English, at her age it should work:).


 

Iris Mesko  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 02:26
Member (2006)
Slovenian to German
+ ...
Positive reinforcement Dec 5, 2011

I believe in the positive reinforcement theory. Personally I do not believe that pretending not to understand would help much at this stage.

As you noticed yourself the problem is, that the child is exposed to the Russian language only with one adult person. And this being you. It would help to find some same age children (maybe a Russian Kindergarten or some visiting children from friends or relatives), for your child to understand, that it is the language not only Daddy is speaking to her, but also other people use to communicate and also children of her age.

Another help would be doing very special things during the time she spends with you and speaks Russian. But it must be something the child itself adores. At the early age it might be singing nice Russian song together, listening to Russian songs for children, reading Russian books, telling her Russian fairy tales, playing theater with Puppets (on the other hand the trick with not understanding could work well with the puppet not understanding her answering in English) - this all should be done as a play and not in a way that the child understands, that it is tricking her out.
Give her something in the Russian language, which she cannot find in English easily (songs, rhymes, parts of Russian culture (music, stories, cartoons, TV shows for children, food, landscapes, your family pictures, your own stories, funny jokes, stories in which she has to guess the right word in Russian .... in this case you can pretend not to remember a word in Russian yourself..... Make the learning fun, give it a special level - build a puppet together, improvise a store and play with her the buying and selling....

Languages are closely linked with emotions, give her positive emotional feedback and she will be speaking Russian again.

It is normal, that children stop using one of the two (or many) languages they speak, if they feel that this language is getting weak. And this is the time you have to try to get her Russian language skills stronger.

Take it as a pleasant game and enjoy it yourself too. You have the role of her language teacher, enjoy this role. Try to do it in a way she will enjoy it too. It all depends what are her favorites. You can make a film of her talking Russian, maybe for her grandmother or other friend who speaks only Russian.... teach her a song, so she will be able to sing the song for the video.

I am sure you will find plenty of other ideas. The ideas that fit to you and to your child. And spend a lot of time with her, doing pleasant things together.

I wish you a lot of success and really give her a lot of positive reinforcement.


 

The Misha
Local time: 20:26
Russian to English
+ ...
What's wrong with English? Dec 5, 2011

I am not even going to pretend to give you advice on how to bring up your children. It is entirely your business, and I understand there may be issues of faith involved in your case. If you think this digression unjustified, I apologize and take it all back. That said, what's wrong with English - or Spanish for that matter, seeing that you are now in Argentina?

I am a proud father of two, both of them US-born, of whom one is about to officially become a teen (Oh, boy!). Neither of them is big on speaking Russian, and in fact, the younger one doesn't speak it at all. Understand, yes, at least so far. Speak - no, thank you. And you know what? Seeing that even my wife and I increasingly prefer English, even in everyday conversation (especially when we bicker halfheartedly, as most veteran couples do), I don't really mind. Anyone extolling the practical virtues - real or imaginary - of knowing Russian, or embracing that mythical ame russe, save your breath. I heard it before. Hey, I almost wrote the book on it.

Having to wear two cultural hats isn't without a cost, especially if one of them is Russian. Having experienced it firsthand, all the way to the bank, I wouldn't want to impose it on my children - not until, and unless they make a conscientious choice. What you do with yours is entirely up to you.

[Edited at 2011-12-05 01:35 GMT]


 

Chris Lovelace  Identity Verified
Argentina
Local time: 19:26
Russian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Russian Games, Cartoons, etc Dec 5, 2011

Thank you for the advice. By all means, please keep it coming.

The hard part in this case is that I don't have a lot of regular contact with other Russian-speakers. The community here is fairly extensive (on the other end of the city), but all the children in those families are adolescents. (I'm sure there are exceptions, but I haven't found them yet.)

YouTube (and RuTube) have been a big help; our daughter LOVES watching Cheburashka and other programs, and she can sing the songs and even recite a lot of the dialogue.

In our case, I think the difficulty is compounded by the fact that I have to speak English with my wife, who speaks no Russian. So, our daughter has to overhear me speak English with my wife. I suspect that this shatters the illusion somewhat that I can't understand our child in English.

I'd like to do Skype with some friends in Russia, but at this point our daughter isn't responding much to anyone on Skype in any language. It would probably be a good exercise just to expose her to it, though.

This may need to be a new topic, but what websites do you recommend for watching children's videos on-line in Russian?


 

Sabine Akabayov, PhD
Israel
Local time: 03:26
Member (2011)
English to German
+ ...
don't give up, she will pick it up sooner or later Dec 5, 2011

We are in a very similar situation. My 5-year old son is exposed to English at school, Hebrew through his father (and me) and German through me.
I'm the only one speaking German with him and sometimes I'm not very consistent and either speak English or Hebrew. He speaks Hebrew and English fluently. He understands everything I say in German but often refuses to speak. Songs are much easier and we sing a lot of German songs together.
Don't force your daughter. Learning languages should be fun. We have books in all three languages as well as music and videos. She is very young and if you don't stop speaking Russian she will start speaking it eventually. Don't pretend you don't understand her English, kids are too smart for that.


 

Natalya Sogolovsky  Identity Verified
Israel
Local time: 03:26
Member (2010)
Russian to Hebrew
+ ...
Books! Dec 5, 2011

Hi Chris, the situation in my family is different from yours. We are from Moscow, have been living in Israel for over 20 years now, and our children are fluent in Russian (including reading), Hebrew and English. The 2 eldest children came to Israel at the age of 4 and 6, but the youngest (11.5) was born here. He speaks only Russian at home and though he prefers reading in Hebrew, he can read in Russian pretty well.

You can find plenty of cartoons you remember from your own childhood just by googling them. But you have to be with your daughter when she watches them and discuss them with her. Naturally the discussion would be held in Russianicon_smile.gif.

And you have all these wonderful children books - just for this age - Chukovsky, Marshak, Berestov, Zakhoder, Moritz.... Russian children literature has a lot to offer just for this age. At about the age of 3 you start with Pushkin's fairy tales, and before you know it she'll recite "Skazka o tsare Sultane" and the others (there are also cartoons, so after she knows the text quite well, you may show her the film!).

You can teach her the ABC in Russian as a new game, and it'll make her more language-conscious.
But don't force her to do it, teach her by the way.

Here www.solnet.ee you may also find activities that may interest your daughter.

Good luck!

[Edited at 2011-12-05 06:02 GMT]


 

Jeff Allen  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 02:26
Multiplelanguages
+ ...
let the context determine their communication flow Dec 5, 2011

Chris,

I am native-English and very near-native French, my wife is native-French and near-native English. We have always spoken French together at home, even when living in an anglophone country. We live in France, the children go to a French public school.
We speak French at home in general. However, I have always spoken to the children only in English and have let them respond to me in the language they prefer (which is French for both of them).
For the childrens' first years (they are now 9 and 6) , we did know a few British folks who would speak in "French" with our kids, not in English (due to the French-speaking environment where they would see each other). Yet I continue to speak in English with the kids, even out in these other places (and translate a summary in a few sentences in French if people around us are bothered). But now people (my kids' friends, their parents, teachers, etc) are so used to it that it doesn't bother them any more.

Don't try to pretend that you don't understand them, kids are sponges and very observant, and will later use that lie against you somewhere else and you won't be able to deny it.
I had tried a few times to get the kids to respond back to me in English, but they always naturally used French.

We have had the chance to travel twice to English-speaking countries with the kids (including a big family reunion with all my family, including all the cousins of my children). These trips where the key moments for the children to understand that they could no longer speak French to everyone. It took about a week or two for our (back then) 5 year old son to grasp that if he did not speak in English with his cousins and their friends, then they would not play with him. I referred to this as the "No English, No Play" method. He figured it out and from then on during the 2 month stay, he only spoke to everyone else in English.

Over the past year we started attending an English-speaking church (whereas we have always been in French ones in the past) which has helped give some balance to English language input for the kids, and they have to speak in English with others (some of whom have difficulty speaking in French). This is the 2nd Christmas they have participated in the Christmas play with all the other children. There are not many utterances to make, but need to be in English. This year is better than last year.

I've found that domain-specific areas are one in which they do reply back to me in English. Yesterday evening I was showing them how to play guitar (in English obviously). And now today even when they say a sentence to me in French, it comes out with code-switching into English when they refer to strumming methods and playing chords. And this is not any different than what other people find when they learn a language and only master it in some domains and not others, due to where they use one language or another.

If Spanish is the outside environment, just let them come with time. If you have more English speaking adults in your environment, then try and privilege more of the DVDs and video based input in Russian. Get all the Disney DVDs you can and play them in Russian only. The rule in our household is that they already hear and speak French everywhere else, so all DVDs and all games that have English in the option menu need to be watched/played in English. That works.

There is no one-size-fits-all rule, and it all depends on the combination of factors in your context, but I highly recommend not to force the kids to speak in one language or another. Let them communicate in what they feel comfortable with, and try to create contexts where they need to communicate with non-bilinguals where possible (using webcam and skype with relatives is a good means).
Note: I didn't see your comment about skype before posting mine.

Another addition: I only read to them in English, so we ask my relatives to send us lots of books in English (as well as CDs and DVDs). If the kids want me to read a specific French book to them, then I simply do interpretation on the fly into English.


Jeff

[Edited at 2011-12-05 07:32 GMT]

[Edited at 2011-12-05 07:35 GMT]


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 08:26
Chinese to English
It's tough, but stick with it Dec 5, 2011

Nothing to add, just agreeing with everyone here. When you're the only input of a particular language, it's very tough. Russian-only materials and lots of reading will help. Visits to Russia will be necessary. Ultimately, you need to give a child a reason to learn a language. They learn quick out of necessity, not just for the hell of it!
But it's very worth it. Even if she never thanks you for the effort you make now, you're making her world a broader and more interesting place.


 

Wolfgang Vogt  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 02:26
English to German
+ ...
same here Dec 5, 2011

Hi Chris, I'm pretty much in the same situation.
My daughter is 4 and I am the only one who speaks German with her. Everyone else around speaks Spanish and she hardly ever replies in German. What has happened though, just a couple of days ago, is that she grabbed the phone when I was talking to my father in Germany! (She doesn't seem to like Skype, though...) She had difficulties forming sentences, but it was quite rewarding to see her engaging in a 100% German conversation.
As far as I have read, the only important thing at this age is to be really consistent in using the foreign language with your kid. (I repeat, as far as I have read...icon_wink.gif And I guess watching Russian TV shows, singing Russian songs etc. is a great way to extend her exposure to this language.

It would be interesting to see if someone went through the same situation and whose kids are 13/14+ already!


 

Edward Vreeburg  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 02:26
Member (2008)
English to Dutch
+ ...
I've got one! (13 year kid) Dec 5, 2011

The (ex) wife spoke French, I spoke Dutch , we lived in France for a while and now we live in the Netherlands. Besides perfect French and Dutch, m,y son also speaks near fluent English (which he picked up from age 4 at another (french) family where the kids spoke English at school and amongst themselves - and yes, in reply to any French question.)... and from computer games of course...
School teaches his Greek, Latin and German... oh boy I do hope he will not become a translator, but get a real job.... ( icon_smile.gif)


So there is no need to force the kid into speaking back a particular language (I've heard one of my nieces in NY say - yes, but mommy and daddy don't speak English very well, so I will just speak French to them) - -

In the beginning it was difficult for me to speak only Dutch, especially since I was the only person around who spoke it. But after seeing a few relatives, my son figured out I was not an idiot who couldn't speak what all others spoke, and recognised it was a different language.

So more contact with Russians would be good - perhaps a nanny? or russian language student who can take your kid out to play one afternoon...

Ed


 

Stefan Blommaert  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 01:26
Member (2012)
English to Dutch
+ ...
Got three and they are all practically trilingual Dec 5, 2011

Situation: I spoke Dutch to our kids, my ex spoke French to them and the nanny always spoke English. We lived in NL. As you can see, we opted for the one person one language principle.

Result: kids that tended to mix everything up in the beginning, they used words in different languages in one and the same sentence, depending on whom they learnt the word from... sentences like "Look, maman, le big vliegtuig" were common.

They started speaking very late and kept "being messed up" until the age of about 7, when things seemed to fall in place and they were able to "see" that they were actually speaking different languages. From that point onwards they were able to take part in a conversation in three languages, going from one language to the other, depending on whom they were talking to.

This, however, doesn't imply that they don't have a "preference", depending on the situation they are in (or so I noticed lately!). Also, if they are in an environment in which one language is dominant, the situation is somewhat biased; in our case, they went to the Dutch school, so their Dutch is in a lot of situations predominant.

My kids are now 19, 17 and 16 and my daughter (19) told me last week that she was grateful (!) that we actually adopted this system when they were kids.

Bottom line (at least for me): keep going and don't give up.

Good luck!


 

Ulrika Mansson
Local time: 02:26
German to Swedish
+ ...
don't make it to a question of power or prestige Dec 6, 2011

would be my answer.
your daughter is only two years old for crying out loud, that is not an age for not answering a childs question or request just becaue she choose the wrong language! i can't imagine she deliberately chooses language to annoy anyoneicon_smile.gif
we are a multilingual family, too, (swedish, german and bosnian) and they kids are all multilingual, and we never ever made a fuss about it.
ulrika


 

Ditte Duclert  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 02:26
Member (2011)
English to Danish
+ ...
The language is in there Feb 20, 2012

and it will come out when the time is right, I think.

I have some friends: Dad is Italian always speaks Italian to his children, Mum is German, always speaks German and they live in Germany. Their oldest boy never responded to his dad in Italian and he was getting a bit frustrated.

When the boy was about 3 1/2, dad and the boy went to Italy, just the two of them, to visit family. As soon as they got off the plane and for the rest of the holidays, the boy spoke fluent Italian - just like that, and he has spoken Italian to his dad ever since.

So there is hope stillicon_smile.gif

[Edited at 2012-02-20 19:10 GMT]


 

Chris Lovelace  Identity Verified
Argentina
Local time: 19:26
Russian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Exposure to other Russian-Speakers is Key Feb 20, 2012

A couple of days after I originally posted this question, I got on Skype with friends in Russia. My daughter would not speak to them, or to the other Russians we saw in the next week. However, as soon as she saw me speaking with others in Russian, it was as if something "clicked": she has been speaking a lot of Russian with me ever since.

I think we will need to do Skype more, because she has started to slip back into more English since some of my wife's family came to visit from the US...

However, my daughter's sudden use of Russian is certainly encouraging.


 
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