I’ve always been insatiably curious about a great many things other people seem to take for granted or have no interest in. How did language evolve, and what do the words we use tell us about the way we think? How can we use evolutionary theory to make unique and testable predictions about our own behaviors? If I can visualize vector transformation across a Riemann manifold, can I abstract this to a 9-dimensional equivalent? And of course, the perennial why do humans keep doing such stupid stuff?
Although I’m not naturally gifted when it comes to learning languages, I always want to be able to speak enough of the language of wherever I find myself in order to understand more about the people and the culture. My curiosity is sufficient to spur me to make the effort — in my case, a very significant effort — to acquire a new language. And so it was that when I began to make regular trips to Ukraine and Russia in the 2000s I decided to learn Russian.
(Note: although in recent years the Ukrainian government has made huge efforts to get more citizens speaking Ukrainian and relying less on Russian, the fact is that aside from the very west of Ukraine most people still speak Russian as their daily language, as do those not only in Belarus and Russia itself but also across most of what used to be the USSR.)
I took the same approach to learning Russian as I’d taken with previous languages, based on my experience as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. I bought Russian language textbooks and I supplemented these with DVDs of Russian movies and I bought a lot of Russian children’s books, because these are usually the starting-point for moving from abstract to concrete in a simple yet meaningful way. I’d used this technique before to learn Spanish, German, and French so I was confident it would also work for Russian.
Guess what? It didn’t.
Seventy-three years of Soviet totalitarianism ensured that Russian-speakers were cut off from the rest of the world. As a result, Russian-centric knowledge fed upon itself without reference to any external influences and thus odd little quirks became large quirks which became set in intellectual concrete.
The most immediately obvious quirk is the Russian-speaker’s insistence that when speaking English, the letter h must be pronounced as a g, leading to Russian tourists who wander around asking for directions to the nearest gotel, and when in trouble shouting for someone to gelp them. I’m personally convinced that Hitler invaded Russia simply because he couldn’t bear the knowledge that Stalin kept referring to him as Gerr Gitler.
Doubtless this particular quirk began as a compositor’s error in some early Soviet textbook and everyone who subsequently tried to point out the mistake was either shot or sent to the gulag archipelago. It’s so firmly embedded in the Russian-speaker’s psyche that when I tried to point out the mistake to a Russian-speaking teacher of English, citing the fact that as a native speaker and someone who has a degree in English from Oxford University I might just know something about the subject, she rejected my claim and expressed sadness at the low quality of the UK education system.
When I subsequently flew her out to California she likewise remained shocked by the fact everyone around was making basic errors of pronunciation. Even something as simple as asking directions to Gallyvood met with blank stares, revealing to her how incompetent English speakers are in their own language. “Let them come to Russia where we know how to speak English properly,” she told me.
Unhappily for me, and for generations of Russian children, a much more significant quirk is that Russian children’s books utilize a strange sing-song version of Russian that is, in effect, an entirely different language. It’s as if all English-language children’s books were written in the nonsensical babble some adults used to employ when addressing three-month-old babies: “Who’s tiny-winey feetsie-weetsies are cutsey-wootsey then, petally-wettaly?”
The remaining vocabulary employed in Russian children’s books is largely predicated on the idea that it’s very important to learn words for things that haven’t been utilized in daily life for at least five centuries, but avoid any mention of anything pertaining to existence in more recent times (such as, for example, the eighteenth century). I imagine this was a strategy developed by authors during the Soviet era to ensure they wouldn’t accidentally include anything that could be construed as either Capitalist Influence or Counter-Historical Capitalist Running Dog Propaganda, which would inevitably have led to them being shot or sent to the gulag archipelago
All this and much, much more meant that my traditional approach to acquiring a new language had to be abandoned and I was forced to use the tools remaining: dull textbooks and as much interaction with Russian-speakers as I could arrange.
If you’ve read this far (and thanks to both of you, by the way) you are likely asking yourself, “what on Earth does this have to do with parenting?”
It’s simple: there’s no such thing as a perfect way to learn a new language. There will be obstacles, local quirks, and all manner of other impediments. What matters is to keep going, to find approaches that while far from perfect are good enough to get the job done. I’m still not fluent but I have enough Russian now to interact comfortably and watch Netflix Russian-language series without subtitles.
It’s the same with parenting. Years ago, when my children were very young, I was talking to my therapist about my concerns regarding my abilities as a parent, my hopes for my children, and my fears that I’d be an imperfect parent.
He was a great therapist — a former boxer and night-club bouncer who brought a very pragmatic and non-passive approach to therapy that made him different from 99% of therapists who just sit passively and then ask, “so how does that make you feel?”
My therapist looked at me for a few moments and then said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re not perfect. Nobody is perfect, no matter how much we want to be. What matters is that you’re a good enough parent.”
That was really important for me to hear. Being good enough was a goal I felt I could achieve. It meant I could screw up at times and yet not necessarily damage my children’s psyches irreparably. My own childhood had been a nightmare and my own parents had been hopelessly incompetent and failure-prone; I wanted something far better for my own precious children. Here was a way to get there: just be good enough, accept the local quirks and obstacles, keep moving forward.
Throughout the following years I kept this idea firmly in mind. I learned to try out different approaches and see what worked and what didn’t, for each child. I learned not to mind the inevitable setbacks and disagreements. I stuck to my belief that I should interact with my children as a linguistic equal so as to encourage their absorption of their native language rather than be trapped in the limited lexical and grammatical structures of their peers. I encouraged them to question things, to ask cui bono, to look for supporting facts rather than merely accept assertions.
And I did my best to be playful because happy children generally develop more quickly and more completely than unhappy children.
I didn’t get it right all the time, but I think I was for the most part good enough.
What works for one child may not work at all for another, despite all the love and all the support one may provide. Genetics plays a very large part in determining character, and co-parenting after an acrimonious divorce rarely makes things simple. There were many times when I felt it would be wonderful if I could re-write reality just a little, but instead I kept on at the job of being good enough.
I’d like to conclude with a happy ending, but as every parent knows: the story doesn’t end. Each child grows up, forges their own path, makes their own choices. Often we cannot know where these paths will lead them. We can only hope they will be good enough adults in their own very different ways.