I no longer remember when I started speaking to Raffi in Russian. I didn’t speak to him in Russian when he was in his mother’s womb, though I’ve since learned that this is when babies first start recognizing sound patterns. And I didn’t speak to him in Russian in the first few weeks of his life; it felt ridiculous to do so. All he could do was sleep and scream and breast-feed, and really the person I was talking to when I talked to him was his mother, Emily, who was sleep-deprived and on edge and needed company. She does not know Russian.
But then, at some point, when things stabilized a little, I started. I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language. And I liked the number of endearments that Russian gave me access to. Mushkin, mazkin, glazkin, moy horoshy, moy lyubimy, moy malen’ky mal’chik. It is a language surprisingly rich in endearments, given its history.
When we started reading books to Raffi, I included some Russian ones. A friend had handed down a beautiful book of Daniil Kharms poems for children; they were not nonsense verse, but they were pretty close, and Raffi enjoyed them. One was a song about a man who went into the forest with a club and a bag, and never returned. Kharms himself was arrested in Leningrad, in 1941, for expressing “seditious” sentiments and died, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital the following year; the great Soviet bard Alexander Galich would eventually call the song about the man in the forest “prophetic” and write his own song, embedding the forest lyrics into a story of the Gulag. Raffi really liked the Kharms song; when he got a little older, he would request it and then dance.
Before I knew it, I was speaking to Raffi in Russian all the time, even in front of his mother. And while at first it seemed silly, because he didn’t understand anything we said, in any language, there came a point when I saw that he did. We started with animal sounds. “What does a cow”—korova—“say?” I would ask. “Moo!” Raffi would answer. “What does a cat”—koshka—“say?” “Meow.” “And what does an owl”—sova—“say?” Raffi would make his eyes big and raise his arms and pronounce, “Hoo, hoo.” He didn’t understand much else, though, at a certain point, around the age of one and a half, he seemed to learn that nyet meant “no”—I said it a lot. He didn’t understand me as well as he understood his mother, and he didn’t understand either of us all that much, but still it felt like a minor miracle. I had given my son some Russian! After that, I felt I should extend the experiment. It helped that everyone was so supportive and impressed. “It’s wonderful that you’re teaching him Russian,” they said.
But I had doubts, and still do.
Bilingualism used to have an undeservedly bad reputation; then it got an undeservedly exalted one. The first came from early twentieth-century American psychologists, who, countering nativists, proposed that something other than heredity was causing Eastern and Southern European immigrants to score lower than Northern Europeans on newly invented I.Q. tests. They proposed that the attempt to learn two languages might be at fault. As Kenji Hakuta points out, in his 1986 book, “The Mirror of Language,” neither the psychologists nor the nativists considered that I.Q. tests might themselves be useless.
In the early nineteen-sixties, this pseudo-science was debunked by Canadian researchers in the midst of debates over Quebecois nationalism. A study by two McGill University researchers, which used French-English bilingual schoolchildren in Montreal, found that they actually outperformed monolingual children on tests that required mental manipulation and reorganization of visual patterns. Thus was born the “bilingual advantage.” It remains the conventional wisdom, as I have recently learned from people telling me about it over and over.
In fact, in recent years, the bilingual advantage has been brought into doubt. The early studies have been criticized for selection bias and a lack of clear, testable hypotheses. It’s possible there is no bilingual advantage, aside from the indisputable advantage of knowing another language. And while it is not the case, as some parents still think, that learning another language alongside English will impede English learning significantly, it may be the case that it impedes it a little bit. As the psycholinguist François Grosjean stresses, language is the product of necessity. If a child discusses, say, hockey only with his Russian-speaking father, he may not learn until later how to say “puck” in English. But he’ll learn when he has to.
In any case, in the absence of a “bilingual advantage” that will automatically test your kid into the preschool of his choice, you have to decide, as a parent, whether you actually want him to know the language. And here, for me, the trouble begins.
My parents took me out of the Soviet Union in 1981, when I was six. They did it because they didn’t like the Soviet Union—it was, as my grandmother kept telling us, “a terrible country,” violent, tragic, poor, and prone to outbursts of anti-Semitism—and they did it because there was an opportunity: Congress, under pressure from American Jewish groups, had passed legislation that tied U.S.-Soviet trade to Jewish emigration. Leaving wasn’t easy, but if you were aggressive and entrepreneurial—my father at one point paid a significant bribe—you could get out. We moved to Boston. Probably no other decision has had a greater effect on my life.
My parents were attached to Russian culture by a thousand ineradicable ties. But they did not cut me off from American society, nor could they have. I assimilated wholeheartedly, found my parents in many ways embarrassing, and allowed my Russian to decline through neglect. Six is an in-between age in terms of assimilation. If you’re much younger—two or three—the chances of keeping your Russian are slim, and you basically just become an American. If you’re older by a few years—for Russians, nine or ten seems to be the cutoff—you probably won’t ever lose your accent, and you will be marked as Russian for the rest of your life. At six, you can still remember the language, but you won’t have an accent. It’s up to you what to do. I know many people who came over at that age and still speak Russian to their parents, but don’t do anything with Russian professionally and never go back to Russia. I also know people who came over at that age and go back all the time and even married Russians. I am in the latter group; I started going over while in college and have been writing and thinking about Russia ever since.
Knowing Russian has meant a great deal to me. It’s allowed me to travel with relative ease throughout the former Soviet Union. Culturally, I have enjoyed the things my parents enjoyed—the Soviet bards, some of the charming Soviet rom-coms of the nineteen-seventies, the poetry of Joseph Brodsky and the plays of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. As I got older, I added some things of my own. But I am aware that my connection to Russia is an attenuated connection. I do not know Russian or Russia as well as my parents did. I am an American who inherited certain linguistic and cultural skills and saw in the wake of the Soviet collapse an opportunity to deploy them as a writer and translator, as my parents once saw a different opportunity—to get out. But most of my life has been lived in English. Does a talented computer programmer teach her children C++? Maybe. If they show an interest in it. But a talented computer programmer doesn’t teach her children languages for which they have no use, or languages that will get them into trouble. Right?
Russia and Russian aren’t useless, exactly, but the country is for the foreseeable future a place of darkness. How old will Raffi be when Putin finally departs from the scene? In the most optimistic scenario, with Putin retiring in 2024, Raffi will be nine. But if Putin holds on longer, maybe Raffi will be fifteen. Maybe twenty-one. Is it impossible for Raffi to go to Russia in the meantime? Not impossible. But not exactly, from his parents’ perspective, desirable. I still remember the look on my father’s face when he dropped me off at Logan Airport so I could go to Russia on my own for the first time. It was the spring of 1995, the end of my sophomore year of college. My father had recently lost my mother to cancer; my older sister, a journalist, had moved back to Russia to pursue her career there. And was he now also losing me? It was the closest I’ve ever seen my father to crying. I wonder if he regretted at that moment that he had kept up my Russian. In my case, I came back. Nothing too bad happened to me. But that doesn’t mean I want Raffi going over there. He’s so small!
I wish I could teach him Spanish, a language that would dramatically expand his access to people in New York City as well as much of the rest of the world. I wish I could teach him Italian or Greek or French, so that he could visit those beautiful countries and speak their languages. It wouldn’t be too bad, in terms of his future job prospects, to teach Raffi Mandarin or Cantonese, the way ambitious hedge funders do for their kids in New York. Hell, even Israel has beaches. If I taught him Hebrew he could read the Torah. But I don’t have access to any of those languages. All I have is Russian. And I don’t even speak it that well.
It is a disadvantage for Raffi that his father’s Russian is as imperfect as it is, that I often can’t remember or don’t know the names for common things—the other day I was trying to summon the name for scooter and called it samogon (moonshine) instead of samokat. I frequently have trouble remembering how to say sheep and goat (ovtsa and kozel, for the record). It doesn’t help that Russian words are so much longer than English ones—milk is moloko, apple is yabloko, hello is zdravstvuyte, and ant is muravey! On top of that, my grammar is full of errors.
I see friends who came over at the same time as I did but didn’t keep up their Russian raising their kids entirely in English. Sometimes I feel sorry for them and all they’re missing; at other times, envious. They have finally liberated themselves from Russia’s yoke, just as their parents wanted them to. They are free to be themselves around their children, to express themselves with ease. They always know the words for scooter and goat and sheep.
There are intense White Émigré communities on Long Island that keep their kids learning Russian into the fourth generation. The journalist Paul Klebnikov came from such a community. After the Soviet Union fell apart he went to Moscow, where he published a book about the corruption of the Russian state by big business. In 2004, he was shot nine times and died on a Moscow street. A poorly conducted trial ended in a not-guilty verdict for the two defendants. No one has been punished for his murder.
Kiev is a place where a lot of Russian is spoken. Parts of Estonia and Latvia, also. Entire neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. Brighton Beach! These are all places I would like Raffi to visit before he visits Moscow, where his father was born.
During the first two and a half years of Raffi’s life, the development of his Russian was by any measure pretty halting. His first word was “kika,” by which he meant “chicken” (there are chickens in the community garden next door to us). For a while, because he used k rather than ch to start the word, I thought it might be a combination of “chicken” and the Russian word, kuritza. But none of his subsequent approximations of words—ba for bottle, kakoo for cracker, magum for mango, mulk for milk—had any Russian components. A glossary we compiled for his grandparents when he was almost eighteen months identified fifty-three words or attempted words, only one of which was an attempt at Russian: mech, i.e., myach, i.e., “ball.” In retrospect, I had to admit that he said kika not because he was trying to say kuritza, but because he couldn’t pronounce the “ch” sound in chicken.
Despite all my qualms about Russian, I was speaking a lot of it to him, and his failure to learn it was hard not to take personally. Did Raffi prefer the language of his mother (and everyone else around him) to that of his father? Was I—this probably closer to the truth—not spending enough time with him? Did he sense my ambivalence about the whole project? Did he hate me?
The psycholinguist Grosjean, in his summary of contemporary research in the 2010 popular textbook “Bilingual: Life and Reality,” says that the major factor that determines whether a child will become bilingual is need: Does the child have any actual cause to figure out the language, whether it’s to speak to a relative or playmates, or to understand what’s on TV? Another factor is the volume of “input”: Does he hear enough of it to begin to understand? A third factor, more subjective than the others, is the parents’ attitude toward the second language. Grosjean uses the example of Belgian parents whose children are supposed to learn both French and Flemish; many parents have a less than enthusiastic attitude toward Flemish, not exactly a world language, and their children end up not learning it very well.
In our case, there was absolutely zero necessity for Raffi to learn Russian—I didn’t feel like pretending I couldn’t understand his fledgling attempts to speak English, and neither was there anyone else in his life, including the Russian speakers in my family, who didn’t know English. I did my best to create a reasonable volume of Russian in his life, but it was dwarfed by the volume of English. Finally, I had, as I’ve said, a bad attitude.
And yet I kept it up. When Raffi was really small, the only Russian books he enjoyed were the nonsense poems by Kharms and the cute nineteen-eighties Swedish books about Max by Barbro Lindgren, which my sister had brought me from Moscow in a Russian translation. But around the age of two he started to enjoy the poems of Korney Chukovsky. I had found these too violent and scary (and long) to read to him when he was very little, but as he became somewhat violent himself, and also able to listen to longer stories, we read about Barmaley, the cannibal who eats small children and is eventually eaten by a crocodile, and then moved on to the kinder-hearted Dr. Aybolit (“Dr. Ouch”), who takes care of animals and makes a heroic journey to Africa at the invitation of a hippopotamus—Chukovsky was a big fan of hippopotamuses—to cure some sick tigers and sharks. I also put a few Russian cartoons into his “screentime” rotation—most of them were too old and too slow for him to like, but there was one about a melancholy crocodile, Crocodile Gena, who sings a sad birthday song for himself, that he enjoyed.
As the months went on I could see that he understood more and more of what I was saying. Not that he did what I told him. But sometimes I would mention, for example, my tapochki, my slippers, and he would know what I was talking about. One time he hid one of my slippers. Gde moy vtoroy tapochek? I asked him. Where is my other slipper? He went under the couch and produced it very proudly. And I was also proud. Was our child a genius? Just from me repeating the same words enough times, and pointing to objects, he had learned the Russian words for those objects. It was incredible what the human mind was capable of. I couldn’t stop now.
I recently read one of the foundational texts in the study of bilingualism, Werner F. Leopold’s “Speech Development of a Bilingual Child,” in four volumes. It’s an amazing book. Leopold, a German-born linguist, came to the U.S. in the nineteen-twenties and eventually got a job teaching German at Northwestern. He married an American woman from Wisconsin; she was of German extraction but did not know the language , and when, in 1930, they had a daughter, Hildegard, Leopold decided to teach her German on his own. He kept a painstaking record of the results. The first three volumes are quite technical, but the fourth volume is less so. It is Leopold’s diary from the time Hildegard turned two until the age of six.
The book is full of Hildegard’s cute grammatical mistakes, and also a fair number of technical transcriptions of her German speech. After developing an impressive German vocabulary in her first two years, Hildegard begins to submit to the predominantly English-language environment. Leopold repeatedly laments the decline of her German. “Her German continues to recede,” he writes, when Hildegard is a little past two. “The progress in German is small.” “The displacement of German words by English ones progresses slowly but steadily.” He gets no support from the German émigré community: “It is very difficult to have the influence of the German language reinforced by our many friends who speak German. All of them lapse involuntarily into English when Hildegard answers in English.”
At the same time, one senses in Leopold a beautiful serenity about Hildegard’s progress, because she is so cute. “It is surprising that she says to shave in English,” he writes, “although I am the only one whom she sees shaving. She asks me every time what I am doing and receives the answer in German, ‘raiseren.’ One evening, she touched my beard stubbles and said, You must shave?” A few months later he notes that Hildegard has begun to be curious about the two languages she is learning. She asks her mother if all fathers speak German. “Apparently,” Leopold writes, “she has up to now tacitly assumed that German is the language of fathers, because it is that of her father. The question reveals the first doubt concerning the correctness of the generalization.”
The decline in Hildegard’s German is finally and impressively reversed when she is five and the family is able to go to Germany for six months. She hears some “Heil Hitlers” in her kindergarten, but otherwise has a great time. I thought, reading this, that if Leopold can take Hildegard to Hitler’s Germany to improve her German, surely I can go to Putin’s Russia. But I haven’t yet.
About six weeks ago, a month before his third birthday, Raffi’s Russian development suddenly accelerated. He began to notice that I was speaking a different language from everyone else—that he was “facing two languages,” as Leopold said of Hildegard. Raffi’s first reaction was annoyance. “Dada,” he said one evening, “we need to put English in you.” He clearly conceived of language—correctly, according to Grosjean—as a substance that fills a vessel. I asked him why he couldn’t speak Russian to me. “I can’t,” he said simply, “Mama put English in me.”
Then, one night, when Emily and I were talking while putting him to bed, he noticed something strange: “Dada, you speak English to Mama!” He had not observed this before.
Then his mother went away for a long weekend. For the first time in a long while he was hearing more Russian than English. He began to get the hang of it. “Dada,” he exclaimed one evening as he was riding my shoulders home from day care, “this is what it sound like when I speak Russian.” He proceeded to make a series of guttural noises that did not at all sound like Russian. But he was beginning to see that it was a different language, and one that he could, theoretically, speak.
He started having more fun with it. “Fee-fi-fo-fum,” he chanted one evening, before getting into the bath, “I smell the blood of a Englishman!” He made as if he was going to eat me. “Me?” I said, in Russian. “I’m an Englishman?” Raffi the giant took the point and adjusted: “I smell the blood of a Russian man!” He laughed riotously—he loves replacing one word or sound with another, often nonsensically. But in this case he made sense. A few days later, at dinner, he said something even more striking. I had been speaking to him, but then changed the subject and addressed Emily. Raffi didn’t like it. “No, Mama!” he said. “Don’t take Dada’s Russian from him!” Russian in this instance was a symbol of my attention.
We were really in it now. Not only did he understand Russian, he understood it as a distinct form of communication between us. If I withdrew it at this point, we would lose that. There was no going back.
At the same time, Raffi was going through one of his periodic bouts of bad behavior. They tend to come in cycles. A month of good behavior followed by two months of willful disobedience and tantrums. The most recent one started a couple of months ago. It involves running away from me or Emily when we’re out for a walk—sometimes entire blocks away. It involves a certain amount of hitting. And it definitely involves bad behavior with his playmates—taking their toys, pushing them, pulling their hair.
I have found that I am shorter-tempered in Russian than I am in English. I have fewer words and therefore run out of them faster. I have a register in Russian that I don’t seem to have in English, in which I make my voice deep and threatening and tell Raffi that if he doesn’t choose right away which shirt he’s going to wear this morning, I’m going to choose it for him. When he runs down the street, I find myself without any embarrassment yelling in a very scary manner that if he doesn’t come back, he’ll get a timeout. (We don’t have a Russian word for “timeout,” so it sounds like this: “RAFIK, YESLI TY NEMEDLENNO NE VERNESHSYA, U TEBYA BUDET OCHEN’ DLINNY TIMEOUT.”) I am more of a yeller in Russian than I am in English. Raffi is afraid of me. I don’t want him to be afraid of me. At the same time, I don’t want him to run into the street and get hit by a car.
Sometimes I worry about this. Instead of an articulate, ironic, chill American father, Raffi is getting an emotional, sometimes yelly Russian father with a limited vocabulary. It’s a tradeoff. Then again, I had a permissive mother and a strict father. And I was very happy.
One of my downfalls as Raffi’s Russian teacher is that I am bad at scheduling. There are constant Russian parent meetups in Brooklyn that I can’t attend or just don’t care to drag myself to. Nonetheless, a few weekend mornings ago I took Raffi to a kids’ sing-along in a bar in Williamsburg. A Russian parent had booked the space and gotten a singer, Zhenya Lopatnik, to perform some children’s songs. There we were—a bunch of Russian-speaking parents with our two-and-three-year-old kids. Most of us were more comfortable in English than in Russian, and none of us had any wish to repatriate. Why, then, were we doing this? What did we want to pass on to our children, exactly? Certainly nothing about Russia as it is currently constituted. Perhaps it was fitting that we were listening to children’s songs. There was something magical about our childhoods, we were sure of that; what we couldn’t know was whether any of it was due to the music we listened to or the books we read in Russian or to the very sound of the language. Probably none of these things; probably it was just magical to be a child. But as we couldn’t rule out that Russian had something to do with it, we had to give it to our kids as well. Maybe.
Raffi didn’t know most of the songs. But then Lopatnik sang Crocodile Gena’s birthday song, and Raffi grew excited and did a little dance.
At the end of the kids’ program, Lopatnik announced that she wanted to do some songs for the parents. “What do you think of Tsoi?” she asked. Tsoi was a songwriter and the lead singer of Kino, one of the greatest Russian rock bands. The adults cheered. She did a song from Kino. Then she did a famous though less cool Nautilus Pompilus song—“I Want To Be with You.” It’s a banal title, but the song has real conviction—the conceit is that the singer’s lover has died in a fire and he longs for her, though in later years the author would insist that he believed the song had religious connotations and that the addressee was God.
I broke glass like chocolate in my hand
I cut these fingers because they could not touch you
I looked at those faces and could not forgive
That they didn’t see you and yet they could live.
We had never listened to this song together and yet Raffi was transfixed. All of us were transfixed. The original version was accompanied by much late-Soviet-rock nonsense, like synthesizers and a sax solo. Yuck. Stripped of these, in Loptanik’s rendition, it was a haunting song. “But I still want to be with you,” went the refrain. “I want to be with you. I so want to be with you.”
In that room, at that moment, it seemed not about religion but, as Nabokov said of “Lolita,” about culture, about language—about our longing to remain somehow connected to Russia, to Russian, despite everything. And the impossibility in so many ways of doing so.
Raffi hummed the Nautilus Pompilus song on the way home. A few days later I heard him singing it to himself as he played with some Legos.
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
And a few days after that, he said his first Russian sentence. “Ya gippopotam,” he said. I am a hippopotamus.
I was deeply, stupidly, indescribably moved. What had I done? How could I not have done it? What a brilliant, stubborn, adorable child. My son. I love him so much. I hope he never goes to Russia. I know that eventually he will.