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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

GROWING PAINS: Mother's Tongue Isn't Kids' Mother Tongue




"Mummy, should I wear my zelyoninkaya platitsa today?" is fairly common Moscow-speak for my 7-year-old daughter, Anna. In theory she's bilingual, but in practice she seems - quite incredibly - to find Russian easier. For those of us who wrestle daily with our declensions and pronunciation it's mind-boggling to think that she should use eight syllables instead of two: "Why don't you just say green dress?" I asked. "It's, er, easier - isn't it?"


Apparently not. It's still a wonder to me to find my children speaking Russian so fluently when I've spent 20-odd years making convoluted grammatical mistakes. Yet their knowledge of both languages comes so naturally that, when asked if they speak Russian to their Russian father and English to me, they can't honestly remember.


My elder daughter, Sasha, thinks in Russian. I know this partly because when she talks in her sleep it's always Russian mutterings, but also because her English is often a translation of the Russian. "My feet really hurt after all that horseback riding I did yesterday," she said to me the other day - nogi being the word for both legs and feet in Russian. She also talks about her "fingers" when she means toes because Russians again have only one word, pal'tsi, for both. (A bizarre omission in my view.) Or if I ask her when she last washed her hair she'll say indignantly that she washed "them" yesterday (hair being plural in Russian.)


Anna speaks in more natural English, but splashes a lot of Russian nouns around. She'd prefer to speak exclusively in Russian, but I can barely understand her fast, colloquial babble. And since listening to and speaking Russian is still a trial I try to put my foot down about having my own kids speak to me in their mother tongue (me being the mother bit.)


I may have housebroken my elder children (and husband) into speaking English to me, but my 4-year-old, Bobby, just can't see the point. I don't think he's being bolshie; he just knows that I understand him, and communication with other people comes naturally in Russian.


Interestingly the girls tend to speak English to each other when they're doing something relatively quiet, like playing chutes and ladders or a card game, but once they start fighting and name-calling it degenerates into slang-filled Russian. Or sometimes one of them might be in English mode and the other in Russian mode, in which case they have a strange, but perfectly easy conversation in two languages.


Needless to say they speak without foreign accents in both languages, which means that passersby presume I'm a very diligent Russian Mom insistent upon supplementing their school English lessons by conversing with them in English. I accept their congratulations with a deprecating smile and admit they're "making progress."