Нет, Моя! No, It’s Mine!

Under Lenin’s gaze, Naomi, age 4, in blue dress at left foreground, participating in her Leningrad preschool’s celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution’s 60th anniversary, November 1977.

One year ago, calling it a “somber centenary,” I wrote about the 100th anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution (October Revolution). Now, on the revolution’s 101st anniversary (actually last Wednesday), a recently unearthed photo of my daughter Naomi and her Leningrad preschool classmates prompts me to write again. This time, my focus is on children’s language acquisition, a subject in which I confess to having absolutely no background other than observations and anecdotes.

When we arrived in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) for a tour of duty at the U.S. consulate-general in the summer of 1976, my son Adam was just shy of one year old and Naomi was nearly three. There were only two other American children their age in the tiny American community, and their family lived halfway across town. Peer companionship for a one-year-old was not an issue for us, but for Naomi it certainly was. So I enrolled her in the neighborhood detskiy sad (детский сад, literally children’s garden) so she could socialize with people her own age.

Several things stick out in my mind about Naomi’s preschool. One was the aroma of cooked cabbage that permeated the place. In my mind’s nose, I can still detect it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy cooked cabbage, and at noon I’d often walk half a block from the consulate to the nearest pirozhkovaya and enjoy a baked pirozhok filled with cabbage as part of my lunch. But the moment I entered the detskiy sad, I was struck, right in the nostrils, by that fragrance.

Actually, in the time we were living in Leningrad, Naomi attended two different preschools. We transferred her into the second one, located in the same complex as our apartment building, shortly after it opened, thanks to its convenience. What makes my cabbage memory even more noteworthy was that even this newly constructed building was already redolent of the stuff.

Another memory is that of attending a parent-teacher program one evening and listening to the headmistress (for lack of a better term, the disciplinarian in charge) and the teachers giving certain individual parents hell — in front of an entire roomful of other parents — for falling short in one or another aspect of their child’s upbringing. They were not shy in their criticism. Katya is obviously not getting enough sleep at night. Tatyana is outgrowing her clothes, her arms are too long for her sleeves — have you no self-respect? Vanya’s shirt is too often sloppily buttoned. And so on.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore! It was a revealing look at a little-reported facet of Soviet society.

But my most enduring memory is of what happened when I went to pick Naomi up at the end of her first day. When I’d dropped her off that morning, she knew not a word of Russian. Her mom and I were confident that, like most kids, she’d soon pick the language up. But I was not prepared for what I heard as I walked into her classroom. The kids were all playing with a variety of things at tables around the room. I spotted Naomi, her back toward the door I’d walked through, sitting at a bench next to a boy, playing with something. As I walked toward her, but not yet having made my presence known, I suddenly heard her tell her playmate, “Nyet! Moya!” (“Нет! Моя! — No! It’s Mine!”)

It was a resounding vindication of our faith in her ability to learn the language.

I confess I did not carefully follow Naomi’s progress in Russian, but I did observe something else. We had a young Russian woman, Irina, who came to the house a few times a week to help my wife with various chores. She’d also often babysit for our kids when we’d go out for the evening. Irina was working not only for us, of course, but also for the KGB (to pass along anything useful she might learn in our home), and she’d no doubt been chosen for the job because she knew quite a bit of English. Whenever she interacted with the kids, she’d speak in Russian, and it was clear that the kids, although they’d respond in English, understood her.

Earlier in life I’d had another opportunity to observe a child’s multilingual abilities. When I was serving in the Peace Corps in India, I traveled with some American friends to spend a week or so in Goa, with its lovely beaches, at Christmastime. To get there, we took a steamship from Bombay (today Mumbai). The voyage took about 24 hours, and on the ship with us were other Peace Corps volunteers and an interesting American family — a mom, dad and roughly three-year-old daughter — that some of my friends knew. The dad was an agronomist who was then teaching at an agricultural college in (as I recall) Jabalpur. Previously, however, he had himself been a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil. His wife was Brazilian, and each parent spoke to their daughter in their own language. They also had a maid, who spoke to the child in Hindi.

At one point, the girl was standing next to me at the ship’s railing. As we stood there we saw someone toss a banana peel into the ocean. “There goes a banana,” she said in English. Having heard from one of my friends that the child was multilingual, I quickly checked it out. “What did you just say?” I asked her in Hindi. “There goes a banana,” she said again — only this time in Hindi. I had not yet learned Portuguese, so I couldn’t repeat the experiment, but I was impressed.

Later, when I was posted to the U.S. embassy in Brasilia (and did speak Portuguese), we had friends who worked at the Brazilian foreign ministry. They told the following story:

A colleague of theirs returned to Brazil on vacation from his embassy post in London. There he and his wife would often entertain British guests at home, and the diplomat, the man, would speak English with them. When the family arrived in Rio, the grandparents came to the airport to greet them. As the adults were conversing, the family’s young son looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Grandpa, why are you speaking the women’s language?”

It’s funny how kids make sense of the world! And amazing how fast they learn!

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