A Raffi Update.

Back in June I posted about Keith Gessen’s attempt to teach his son Raffi Russian: “I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language.” Now Francois Grosjean (whom I posted about here) has a brief interview with Gessen in which we learn how things are going:

Do you see yourself polishing your Russian up in order to enrich Raffi’s own Russian?

My Russian is already improving in that I have to speak in it all the time to Raffi. And as he starts asking more sophisticated questions about the world, I have to try to produce more sophisticated answers. Or at least sensible ones. […]

Another important factor is input, a lot of input, as well as a diversified input. How will you make sure that Raffi gets it in the years to come?

I read to him in Russian a lot, and will continue to do so. Despite a somewhat exalted reputation, Russian literature for little kids is not as rich as American literature for that age group. But there are some wonderful things, especially the poems of Korney Chukovsky, which Raffi really loves, and there are also translations.

Speaking of translations, we’ve recently discovered a rich treasure trove of Russian-language versions of Western cartoons. On YouTube, you can get “Peppa Pig” in Russian, “Ninja Turtles” in Russian, and even the awful “Paw Patrol” series in Russian. There are also some excellent Soviet-era cartoons on YouTube, but on the whole, they’re a little too slow-moving for someone who’s been exposed to the speed of American cartoons. […]

What other strategies were you thinking of to make Russian an important part of Raffi’s life and anchoring the language in his mind?

The closest thing to a Russian-only environment within driving distance of us is my father’s house in Massachusetts, and I hope to continue getting Raffi (and now his younger brother, Ilya) there as much as possible.

I must say, even in the past couple of months (approximately since Raffi turned three), he has been finding his Russian to be a source of pride. “Mama,” he now tells his monolingual mother, “I speak Russian and English.” It’s not strictly true that he speaks Russian. His passive vocabulary is large but his active vocabulary is currently about ten words. But the other day we had a Russian-speaking friend over and Raffi started showing off by giving the Russian names for various objects. So he clearly has, at least for the moment, an aspiration to learn Russian better. That seems to me a good start.

Thanks, JC!


  1. At the same blog a nice post about The Amazing Rise of Bilingualism in the United States.

    Some might disapprove of this but I find it very heartening.

  2. I disapprove of the people who disapprove of that!

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