Teaching My Russian Kids: Russian!
Do you think your Russian kids speak real Russian? Unless they’re teenagers, think again. Our kids were adopted over the years from the ages of 7.5 to 11.75. Except for the oldest, all speak a substandard form of Russian.
Only a fluent, native-born Russian would detect this. Not that I’m in that category, butchering and making up words at will. But I have enough friends and family willing to tell me-! Which is why I, in some ways “least likely to succeed”, will be teaching them Russian.
Don’t get me wrong. We have a bonafide tutor for the oldest boys. She makes them speak, and read, and answer questions about famous Russian plays by Marshak. My concern centers around the basic, everyday, shoot-the-breeze-with-your-friends-in-the-ploschad type of Russian. I am focusing on conversational Russian, polite Russian, and written Russian.
I have my work cut out for me.
“Where is your rucksack?” I ask one day.
“Toot’ah,” replies one.
“Tahm’ah,” she thinks she’s answered incorrectly.
“Toot’ah?” “Tahm’ah?” No such thing in Russian. It’s either “toot” or “tahm”.
I make my plans to gather the troops and run them through the paces. It’s one thing to have Russian natives comment about the cute American kids who speak such good Russian, it’s another thing to have the cute Russian kids speak awful Russian. We convene at the long, lacquered, kitchen farmhouse table, hanging halogen lights doubling as interrogation spotlights.
“Dokumenti!” I bark out, play-acting a Customs Official at an unnamed Russian airport.
“Mama, you need to say ‘please’, protests my youngest in Russian, so sweet.
“When I hear it at the airport, I’ll say it,” I play-snarl back.
My eyes narrow as I peer at my older daughter. I find a ruler to smack on my hand’s open palm, pacing back and forth, soldier-style.
“Kak vas zavoot?”
“Uhh… Mashenka?” she starts tentatively, exactly the goldfish in the shark pool that Customs Officials are trained to spot.
“Famil’iyah – eem’yah – oh’chestvah,” I remind. Last name, first name, patronymic. For this exercise, we have ditched our multi-syllabic Italian last name for “Smirnov”.
“Ehhhhh!” goes my pretend, game-show buzzer. “Wrong! How do we make a female last name? What do you need to add to Smirnov?”
“Smirnovna-?” she attempts, confused.
These are my Russian children. They have no clue. They have never lived in the real world where they would have the need to address anyone by their last name.
“Ehhhhh!” goes the make-believe buzzer again. “-Ovna is the ending for the patronymic.”
“Ooh-ooh-ooh!” Petya our oldest son raises his hand excitedly.
“Dah, gaspahdyin?” I give him my wary gaze.
“Prah’velnah, ten points for you,” I congratulate.
“Eem’yah,” I turn back to the girls. “I don’t have time for this. Speshee!” The more pressure I put on them, the more giggly and happy to learn they are. They think it’s a game.
“Mashenka!” says one.
“Sashenka!” exclaims the next.
“What, you think I want to be your friend? Is that what your passport reads? You need your legal name!” I protest, still in the Customs Agent role.
This is a good way to get rid of parental frustration and angst, I’m finding. I would recommend commandant role-playing to any parent needing to keep the troops in line.
At several points, I send one or more to “prison” for not giving me their place and date of birth in a rapid-fire manner. The power that I wield….
And thus we start our hour-long lesson, quizzing backwards, forwards.
“Ivan, the son of Ivan,” I toss out to the boys, like a dry piece of bread to a couple of hungry goosie waddling down a muddy village lane.
“Ivan… Ivan’ich!” shouts Pasha, who still retains the most correct Russian out of the four of them, though he’s been home now a full year and a half.
“Ahtlitch’nah!” Excellent, I applaud him.
“But why not ‘Ivan… Ivan’ovich?'” questions Petya.
“Good question, you’re both right. One is how you pronounce it, one is how you write it.”
Our writing exercises could be termed an exercise in futility. The kids insist they are brain surgeons and above something so elementary as handwriting or vocabulary practice. But we all know about doctors’ handwriting-! Bring it on.
“Horoshoh, exa’men!” I announce.
“Nyetttt!!!” they shrink back in horror.
“Dahhhh!!!” my gold teeth gleam in the sunlight.
“Nomer ahdyin: ‘Zdrast’vweetyeh! Davai’tyeh pahznakomeemsyah!’ Nomer dvah….”
“Mama, slow down!”
Afterward, as I check over their eight or so test phrases, some of the kids don’t capitalize anything; one writes entire sentences as a whole, bolshoi, run-on mega-word, totally connected at every hook and loop; another substitutes the occasional English letter for the Russian sound. It’s enough to make the most hardened of teacher/tutors give up, but, glutton for punishment that I am, I trudge forward.
We try to finish on a high note for the day, a free word-association exercise involving Russian formal names and nicknames.
“Anything else? Just Dima? How about ‘Mitya’?”
They shrug, unimpressed. “Dima” does it just fine for them.
I wrap up the lesson, summarizing the high points.
“On a female last name, what letter do we add?” I coach.
“-Ovna!” one shouts.
“No!” I put my head in my hands. “One letter–ahdnah’ book’vah!”
“Aaaa!” shouts another.
“There is no long “aaaa” in Russian…” I moan.
“Ah! Book’vah ‘ah’,” they all scream, our grand prize winners for the day. At last.
Next class, maybe I’ll try to focus on the Russian vocabulary needed to decipher Rohrshach ink blots, or how to conduct a business presentation, argue a legal case in court, or defend a Ph.D. dissertation. Anything’s got to be easier than saying hello and figuring out their name in Russian….
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