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My husband is American, and I am Russian. We live in US in an area without a large Russian community. My relatives are in Russia. Our daughter is nine months old, and I have been speaking to her in Russian only since she was born.

Of late, I have begun introducing her to the Cyrillic alphabet via alphabet fridge magnets, alphabet cubes, and flash cards. I also have a small collection of Russian books.

My instinctive approach is this: to keep the rotation of Russian words in speech and written form somewhat small so as to foster familiarity with such words. So I am currently rotating reading to her from a small selection of books.

Is this approach going to help her build connection with a basic vocabulary or should I try to broaden it as much as I can and as soon as I can?

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    There is zero harm speaking 2 languages with small children. They will automatically learn them both. Children are able to automatically understand that they are 2 different languages, so you don't need to do anything in particular for "keeping them separate". Don't worry about "confusing" the kid. Sure, probably at the beginning they might mix them but in 4-5-6 years they will perfectly speak both. – Bakuriu Jan 16 at 12:31
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    It's an important note that bilingual kids do tend to produce fewer words (in one language) than their monolingual peers at younger ages. This isn't a cause for concern, they rapidly catch up. – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 16 at 22:13
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    I raised a bilingual son in Spain (other language English) by only speaking English with him as well. In the first 1-3 years be aware that you may not feel like you are making much progress in teaching but rest assured even if not a lot of the second language is being spoken it is all going in. Keep going and push the vocabulary. I left my son with my English only speaking parents to go for dinner for the first time when he was three and we were all worried that he wouldn't be able to communicate, when I came home my parents told me me he'd spoken great English (for his age) the whole time. – James Scott Jan 17 at 15:08
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    @DanDascalescu That's stretching the definition of "harm." And in any case, a Russian-English household can't just magically teach their kid Chinese. – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 18 at 20:33
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    One thing to note. Based on my little experience (my daughter, and a few conversations with others), is that young children that learn two languages this way (one from one source or set of sources, and the other from other sources) do tend to get a little confused when the source/language pairing breaks. It took years before we could get her to speak English to her grandparents. When we moved (at 2.5 years old) and daycare went from French to English, we were very surprised when the daycare told us that we needed to work on getting her to speak English - we spoke English at home – Flydog57 Jan 19 at 0:51
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is this approach going to help her build connection with a basic vocabulary

Yes

should I try to broaden it as much as I can and as soon as I can?

Yes. Progress the Russian and English vocabulary at the same pace and at whatever pace feels "natural".

First of all, it's great that you are trying raise a bilingual child. This will be a great benefit to her. Small kids are quite capable of learning multiple languages at the same time if it happens "naturally", i.e. through every day interaction with a native speaker. The good old "Mom speaks Russian" + "Dad speaks English" generally works very well for this.

Over time you will find that the environment will take over and English will become dominant, but that's ok. Early exposure to the language lays a foundation that never goes away. They may forget many of the words, bungle the grammar, but they will almost always be able to understand, they will never have an accent, and it'll come back very quickly once being exposed to native speakers again.

Regarding the vocabulary: you should progress Russian at the same pace as English. Whatever level feels right in one language should be fine for the other as well. Personally, I'm in favor of "overshooting", i.e. expose kids to complexity, abstraction and differentiation early. The things that you draw with are not just "pens". They are pencils or markers or crayons or chalk or ball pens and they are all different in how they work and what you can do with them. As soon as the kid is ready to use different utensils they are ready to use the correct word for it. If you feel they are in over their head you can back off a bit, but many kids thrive and love that challenge. Please don't "dumb it down" to baby talk.

Source: we have raised three (now adult) children. One is bilingual, one is trilingual and one is quadrilingual. The ability to speak multiple languages has created wonderful opportunities for them.

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    thank you so much for your response. I totally agree that dumbing down is not optimal and I would strive to avoid it. Thank you for reminding to keep a natural pace. – Isabella Leonarda Jan 16 at 0:10
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    I was wondering what’s wrong with “baby talk” if it’s done “naturally”? By that I mean, however it is that people who speak Russian normally speak to their babies? I thought that baby talk was something all, or most, cultures do in one form or another and that it’s beneficial? – Jax Jan 16 at 1:29
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    @Jax It’s beneficial to over-exaggerate the sounds and keep the vocabulary simple early on, but if you keep doing it for an extended period of time it can be detrimental because it avoids complexity in communication at the time the child is most able to adapt to it. Building vocabulary early helps significantly improve their understanding of the language, and not just using ‘baby talk’ all the time helps improve their listening comprehension. – Austin Hemmelgarn Jan 16 at 16:04
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    I'd add that baby talk is appropriate at certain times moreso than others as they get older. Eg my toddler is almost 3 and I still use baby talk with her if she gets hurt or I am comforting her. Otherwise in day to day i try to use proper vocabulary and talk to her as normal. – eipi Jan 17 at 10:20
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    Your mileage may vary on "will never have an accent" - I grew up speaking 2 languages at home, and to this day have an odd accent in the second one that native speakers immediately pick up on, but can never actually place. – Sebastian Lenartowicz Jan 17 at 20:07
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There is no harm in broadening the second language (e.g., Russian) vocabulary. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual and monolingual children have similar overall vocabulary sizes (see, for example, De Houwer et al (2014), and Pino Escobar et al (2018)).

REFERENCES:

[...] our study finds no evidence of consistent differences between young bilinguals’ and monolinguals’ vocabulary sizes. The number of languages (two vs. one) that young children are learning appears not to be a central factor in explaining variability in vocabulary size.

De Houwer A, Bornstein MH, Putnick DL. A Bilingual-Monolingual Comparison of Young Children's Vocabulary Size: Evidence from Comprehension and Production. Appl Psycholinguist. 2014 Nov;35(6):1189-1211. doi: 10.1017/S0142716412000744. Epub 2013 Jan 28. PMID: 29527076; PMCID: PMC5842817: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29527076


Verbal fluency and attentional control were tested in 8-year-old monolinguals and bilinguals.
Monolinguals and bilinguals had comparable English receptive vocabulary sizes.
Bilinguals outperformed monolinguals on tasks of verbal fluency.

Pino Escobar G, Kalashnikova M, Escudero P. Vocabulary matters! The relationship between verbal fluency and measures of inhibitory control in monolingual and bilingual children. J Exp Child Psychol. 2018 Jun;170:177-189. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2018.01.012. Epub 2018 Feb 22. PMID: 29477095: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022096517304733?via%3Dihub

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  • Isn't the choice between a 10% reduced vocabulary and two languages? – Peter Mortensen Jan 17 at 9:56
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    Also i think it dramatically depends on the kids development. My daughter is talking in full sentences Bilingually at 32mo. Her cousin is also Bilingual and the same age and his vocabulary is 50 words. I think the variation in vocabulary development from one child to another is much larger than the difference between one language and two in the same child. So 'reduced vocabulary' due to Bilingualism is very hard to quantify, because you don't know what their vocabulary would have been had they been raised monolingual. – eipi Jan 17 at 10:44
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We live in Finland, have two kids and one of the parents speaks Finnish natively, the other one Spanish. We also speak each others' languages and English. Our policy is that both parents speak only their native language to the kids, maybe translating individual words if the kids previously know the word only in a different language, or to be very certain that the message gets understood. The kids also learn English from TV, Internet and at school.

The kids handle all of this with ease and are completely bilingual. If I was a Russian speaker in the US, I'd speak to my own kids at home in Russian only, especially if they have a native English speaker in the house to make sure they'll be perfectly fluent in that as well even before entering daycare / hobbies / school.

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There are a lot of answers to the general question of how to raise a bilingual child, but I haven't seen anyone mention singing along to music which would be great at this age. Songs stick in memory longer and the repetitive nature of songs gives you that small vocabulary without getting boring.

Anything that you can do to make Russian fun will help her stick with it.

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Teach your child as much as you can! There's no "risk" at all for her development. You might notice though that your child uses one language as "main", i.e. if you talk to her in Russian you might get a reply back in English. This is quite normal though for bilingual children and she will progress to full fluency and dual speech when she gets a little older. Sometimes she will speak English when addressing you, just repeat the phrase in Russian to teach her and answer her (in Russian). Occasionally, you can can answer in English as well to clarify details she did not understand fully.

I'm bilingual myself (Swedish and Dutch), married to a Russian and our children are bilingual (Swedish and Russian). Given your location, and thus time difference, it might be difficult to let her talk to relatives, e.g. your mother, but try to use FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype etc to connect her to native speakers. My kids speak to my mother-in-law every week and have lessons with her. A tip is to try to find a male Russian in your social circles so she can hear the difference between male and female speech. My son has had some problems using the proper conjugation as my wife's Russian friends and acquaintances mostly are female.

Also, you should be able to find Russian programs for kids on e.g. YouTube etc. It's amazing how much kids can pick up just by listening to such content. Just try to be persistent and consistent, and you'll succeed in teaching her your own language.

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It would be an advantage for your daughter to learn Russian language as early as possible. You should concentrate on teaching her Russian, and broadening her vocabulary. She will learn English by herself in school. It's no problem. But she has a unique chance to learn a second language at home, that not many kids have.

I would suggest reading Russian poetry to her like Pushkin and Lermontov. I grew up in a similar environment as a young child. My father would constantly read poetry to me and I was able to memorize the lines by heart by 4 years old. If you do not have very many books you can find Russian poetry and songs on YouTube.

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We live in a somewhat similar situation, though both parents are Russian-speaking with children born in another country. We were advised to make a subconscious geographical boundary while they were young, with only Russian spoken at home (which is easy to do when everybody speaks it) - in particular with the goal that kids can communicate with their grandparents. We were also advised to not worry much about the extra load it puts on the children - and that each extra language added early on can manifest as roughly a one-year developmental delay behind monolingual peers; after the brain speeds up with such extra training (learning to learn, the greatest skill of them all) they will catch up and overtake.

This will be a notable effort on your side, but very rewarding eventually, to help children keep the several languages actively known (and note they are easy to forget if not used regularly - even by adults), and separate (not mixing the two, which is also very hard and millions of people failed to).

Eventually our kids picked up fluent native-level local language in kindergarten and school, and though we did not want to induce too much load - they stepped up themselves to also learn English and then we eagerly helped :)

I'd say they know at least Russian and local languages better than their age-group peers (classmates etc.) only speaking one of those languages, because they had to differentiate and we had the different language rules explained early on. Literally: first-graders here are learning one new letter a week for their first-ever semester, while ours were reading whole books during a lesson to keep not-bored in school. This matched the experience of other migrant families (or mixed-origin parents where still both spoke non-local language at home) who chose to stay with both languages.

For English-speakers analogy, I think properly educated bilinguals do not suffer the modern plague of people genuinely not understanding the difference of "your" vs. "you're" and so on, just because they had to learn the mechanics of languages early on, instead of casually picking something they hear and wondering for a second how that could be written. They would also read more, in different languages, as part of their learning curve - and it would just hammer the right wording structures into the brain. (I as a child had what was dubbed a "natural literacy" in Russian thanks to reading a lot, and had no use for the rules taught in school... until English barged in and lots of same words had suddenly different spellings and after some years confused me; learning Czech much later in fact taught me a lot more about the mechanics of Russian as well, and that was recently reinforced with what our kids learn... so much ado about being a fluent native speaker :) learning never ends).

Unfortunately, we also had acquaintances from earlier migration waves who did not consider knowing an extra language as valuable, and even 12-year old children who came to another country after years of schooling in Russia, can not understand it now as adults and some who wanted - had to re-learn from scratch or close to that. They also lost years of not communicating with their grand-parents, for example, even after the Internet appeared to make that feasible... oops, too late.

There was also a poster-girl in class for how to not do it: her mother came from Moldova (so spoke Romanian and Russian, her parents spoke nearly exclusively Romanian while she mostly speaks Russian to friends) and father is from France. The parents spoke English to each other at home, and she also had Czech from kindergarten. They did not place the lingual boundaries early on, and she brewed a language of her own made from these five - and none of the adults around even knows all five at the same time to fully understand what she emits. They make fairly reasonable guesses, but that is not a good way to communicate all the time :\

Finally, as various famous people said, "you are a person as many times as many languages you know". A well-learned language is not just "can read with a dictionary" but also about knowing another culture, traditions, history, understanding their way of thinking and reasoning. When we had language courses before deciding to migrate, one student was from a Middle-Eastern country and he was close to reaching his goal of learning some 5-7 European languages (roughly, any 3 Romanic and any 3 Slavic and likely some from Hungaric family, to give a sufficient basis to quickly adapt into the remaining languages if needed) to be open and flexible about his choices where to settle and work.

I really hope and wish that you succeed in this endeavour, and notably with the Internet it is a lot easier to achieve than a decade ago - don't forget there are also a lot of online tutors, logopaedics and Russian language and literature teachers, and complete school programs like uchi.ru (not now of course, but in some 3-5 years it will matter), printable materials for setting the handwriting, etc.

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Speaking from personal experience. We are a Russian-speaking family living in England. We wanted to ensure that our children speak Russian (we had twins). What we did was speak only Russian to them at home. When they went to nursery (kindergarden), they knew virtually no English words (other than their names maybe). It was an absolutely shock to them - initially. In two weeks, they picked up enough English to be able to communicate with the teachers and other children. Now, aged 7, we struggle to make them speak Russian.

The bottom line, the more you speak Russian with them at home, the better. They will pick up English whether you want it or not.

Of course, this is somewhat different in your case, as your husband may not speak Russian - but I still wanted to share our experience.

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