By Keith Gessen (The New Yorker)
When bilingualism isn’t obviously valuable, you have to decide what you think of the language. Why Did I Teach My Son to Speak Russian?
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; at other times, envious.
Illustration by Tim Lahan
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.