There were a few times over the last year when D wondered whether he should give up and stop speaking to Munchkin exclusively in Russian.
The little man started talking just as we left Moldova and though he initially used more Russian than English, the latter quickly outstripped D’s native tongue in Munchkin’s lexicon once we returned to the States. When he transitioned from using single words to speaking in phrases, and then in full sentences, English’s dominance became paramount, and for a while it seemed like his comprehension of Russian had stunted. Whereas S was able to use ever more complex speech in her interactions with Munchkin, D had to keep his conversation at as a basic a level as possible just to be understood.
But recently we had a breakthrough. A little more than half a year after we moved to Kigali, D’s parents came to visit us for two weeks. Not only was D adamant that they only speak to Munchkin in Russian, but also we used their visit to escape to South Africa for an all-too-brief baby-moon. D’s parents insisted on spending every minute of their visit with their only grandson, so we pulled him out of school for the duration of their stay, which left him with no English interlocutors for the better part of a week. What’s more, immediately after they left, S also had to return to the States for a weeklong conference.
The three weeks of continuous exposure to a much higher proportion of Russian than Munchkin is used to hearing typically has led to a veritable explosion – not only did he start using words that D long suspected Munchkin knew but refused to employ, but also he started speaking in short, complete Russian sentences and to mix complex Russian phrases into his English chatter.
Не плачь (don’t cry); Помоги (help); Включи свет (turn on the light); Открой дверь (open the door); Пойдем вниз (let’s go downstairs); Помой руки (wash hands); Пошли купаться (let’s go swimming); Идем спатки (let’s go to sleep); Поцелуй (kiss); Он горячий (it’s hot) – simple words and phrases that nevertheless cause D an inordinate amount of happiness when they unexpectedly escape Munchkin’s mouth.
And more complex phrases too: Пожалуйста, дай мне молоко (please give me milk). Не надо. Больно. Не нравится. (Don’t. It hurts. I don’t like it) – when in the course of roughhousing D overtickled Munchkin. Зачем? Куда полез? – roughly translating to “now where do you think you’re going?” – a phrase D clearly uses quite a lot but was quite shocked to hear thrown back in his own direction.
Getting Munchkin to use Russian pronouns remains a challenge D has yet to overcome. The Munch either skips them entirely or uses the English “I” or “my” in their place: I люби папу и мама (I love papa and mama); I наелся (I’m full); I не вижу (I don’t see); I не знаю песенку // I не знаю по русски (I don’t know the song // I don’t know [that] in Russian); My oчередь (It’s my turn). He even started experimenting with declining Russian nouns (папу vs папa), though he mostly gets the endings wrong.
After several FSI phone-in classes and two years in Moldova, S speaks fairly good baby Russian, which until recently had been enough to understand the occasional Russian words Munchkin previouly inserted into his speech. Now, his Russian is beginning to outrstrip hers. “Oчень аккуратно. What does that mean?” S called out from the kitchen, where Munchkin was watching her cook – he had just told her to be careful around the stove.
At this rate, D might soon have the secret language he had hoped to one day share with Munchkin after all.