The Terrible Trilinguals

, , , , | Friendly | April 21, 2020

I’m babysitting two small children, a five-year-old and a three-year-old. These two children are trilingual, while I am not. By virtue of spending a lot of time with these kids, I can understand a moderate amount in German and a small amount in Russian but can’t speak in either language. 

Today on the agenda is swimming lessons, and when we finish, I herd them towards the elevators so we can head back to their house. As we get there, we approach a family who is speaking Russian. The five-year-old is always psyched to find other people who speak her languages, so she strikes up a conversation with the two little girls.

As happens with regularity, the mother turns to me and starts speaking to me in Russian. I explain that I’m their babysitter and I’m woefully monolingual. The five-year-old then launches into an explanation — in Russian — of who speaks what language in her family, since not everyone speaks all three.

She makes a mistake and I correct her in English, which leads to some weird looks from the mother of the other family. I explain that I can understand a little bit, but I don’t speak it. The mother asks why I don’t speak it or learn to speak it, and the five-year-old interjects with a bit of Russian I don’t understand. 

The mother starts laughing, while the five-year-old gives a cheeky grin. The mother tells me that the kid told her I’m a bad student, which is why I don’t speak it. I also laugh, because that assessment comes from her trying to teach me Russian words for months but giving up because she didn’t like my decidedly American pronunciation. Good thing she wasn’t grading me.

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