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Monday, March 21st, 2011

Is it useful to start teaching my children my native language when they are 4 and 7 years old?


Dear Dr. Gupta,

My children are 4 and 7 years old and we live in Australia. My first language was Russian, though I was born and raised in Australia and I remember being sent to kindergarten and school not knowing English—an experience I found terrible and isolating, even though I learnt English fast.

For this, as well as various other reasons, I did not speak Russian to my children from birth and am now wondering whether it would be any use at all to start to speak Russian to them at this stage. I am keen to do so and am also conscious of the fact that now that they are older, they may have more understanding of why I’m doing it, and can also ask questions when they need to.

My husband and I are also keen, almost fluent, French speakers, and would like to pass on our love of this language to our children too.

We have Russian family, who would be patient with the children, but would also speak to them in that language, and also have a couple of friends who speak French as native speakers, so there could be some exposure to that arranged too.

I look forward to your opinion.

– Tamara Adams

Dear Tamara,

Your first decision is going to be between Russian and French. Generally, language learners do better when they have the opportunity to use a new language and when they have community support, so I think you are more likely to be successful with Russian than with French. The children may also be interested in the idea that this is something in your family heritage: this can be a motivation too.

You won’t succeed unless the children are willing. And you can’t just start speaking Russian and expect them to pick it up. You are indeed going to have to talk about it and you are going to have to do some teaching.

One thing you could start with is to find out how much they already know about Russian. You might be surprised. They probably already know that it is a language associated with the family and they are likely to be able to recognise it, having heard it at family gatherings. They may be able to imitate its sound. They may know a few words in it. Build on the basis of their knowledge. Start modestly, with a few social expressions, counting, colours, parts of the body, foodstuffs and songs. Make it fun.

Depending on where you are, you might be able to arrange for both children to go to a class. For example, in Sydney, the Maroubra Russian School runs classes for children on Sundays, starting at age 4. If this is possible where you are, give it a try. You may need to give the children a lot of encouragement—many children hate Sunday language classes.

It’s a pity you remember the isolation of being immersed in English when you started school. The reason you learnt English very fast is because you had to. You wanted to play with the other children. You wanted to learn from lessons. Your children do not have the same need for Russian (unless you go to Russia). You cannot expect them to learn Russian as fast as you learnt English.

So don’t expect too much. Be modest in your aims. Many children in the situation of your children see no point in learning the ancestral language. But if you can just give them an affection for Russian and a few words and expressions, you will have achieved something that they can build on later, either by learning more Russian, or by learning other languages when they have an opportunity.

© 2011, Anthea Fraser Gupta. All rights reserved.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

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