As most of my readers know, we are a trilingual family. My mother tongue is Russian, and it’s German for my husband. In other words, we have a gift of foreign language that we pretty much failed to give to our daughter so far. When we had Anna, our goal for her was to speak both English and German and to add Russian later. But here is the conversation between me and Anna the other day:
Anna: Mama, it will take me 40 years to read all the books in my room, because I have so many!
Me: And you also have to learn German and Russian first, because some of them are in German and some of them are in Russian.
Anna (after thinking a little): Well, I will read only English books then, and then I can read them faster.
It’s hard to explain why our German efforts sort of fizzled and Russian didn’t even start. When Anna was an infant, my husband spoke a lot of German to her. When she started talking, she used a mixture of German and English words, but rather quickly sorted them out and dropped German entirely in favor of English. It was harder for my husband to keep speaking German to her, and his time with her declined since she went to an English-language preschool. He definitely doesn’t speak enough German with her at the moment. In other words – she doesn’t have enough exposure to the second language to become accustomed to it and build a vocabulary. She can kind of follow directions and she can answer simple questions asked in German (she answers them in English), but this is about it.
Russian is even worse off. Anna hears me speak to my parents in Russian every day, but she doesn’t have a lot of interest in learning the language. Sometimes she asks me how to say a random word in Russian or asks me to sing a Russian song. When I try to read to her in Russian she wants me to translate for her on the fly into English. She doesn’t want to watch any movies in Russian, I had to trick her into watching a movie that didn’t even have a lot of words to start with. I tried to teach her words by focusing around one topic – for example, colors, but she is not really interested in it either.
More dedicated bilingual families make it work, of course. It helps if both parents speak the same language or if a parent uses minority language consistently. Children watch a lot more TV in minority language, have playmates who speak that language or attend a language preschool. We did discuss a language preschool briefly – we have both Russian and German immersion preschools in our area. There are also weekend language schools. But… our time is already so precious, and we don’t want to spend our weekends in language classes. We’d rather go on trips or visit friends.
So where will we go from there? To tell you the truth – I am not sure. German is easier overall – we have family in Germany, we have friends here who speak German, we have more access to German TV and programs. It will be interesting to see what happens when Anna’s German grandparents come to visit us two weeks from now – I want to give Anna as much time with them as possible and hope that her dormant German gets a boost. My husband will probably go to Germany with Anna in the summer for at least 3 weeks – it will be quite a shock for her to be in the place where everyone speaks German. I am optimistic that we can get her German going. Russian will probably be more of “maybe one day” thing even though I do want to attempt daily short sessions when I speak only Russian to her. We’ll see what develops. Any input or advice is highly appreciated.