My son unwraps the gift of words

When I adopted my 6-year-old son Anton nine months ago, he didn't speak a stick of English. Isolated as he was in a small orphanage in a Ukrainian village, I'm sure he wasn't even aware that there were languages other than his native Russian.

Nevertheless, Anton was chatty almost from the beginning, and I knew it'd be interesting, to say the least, to observe the unfolding of his English.

I had been through this before. Nine years ago I adopted my first son, a Russian boy named Alyosha. He was almost 8 when I got him. Within a couple of weeks he was uttering individual English words (such as "No!"), then sentence fragments (such as "I won't!"). Within several months he was speaking a pidginized English ("Me not want to!"). But then, one day, a perfectly constructed English sentence, elegant and sophisticated, came out of nowhere. We were sitting at the kitchen table, eating pizza, a food for which Alyosha had not yet developed a taste. After a few bites he pushed the plate away and declared, "I will crave pizza no more."

His English had arrived.

Although Anton was younger when I adopted him, his English has developed more slowly than Alyosha's did. I attribute this to his being so much more talkative than Alyosha was. Anton spoke so much Russian – often to himself – during the first few months after his arrival that he self-reinforced his mother tongue, making it harder for English to penetrate. But penetrated it has, with often comic – and at times exasperating – results.

Oddly, one of the first words Anton learned (and I fear it was from me) is "disgusting." The problem with learning a new word as a child is that one may get the pronunciation and general meaning right, but not the context. The word exists in an ether of misconception, erupting ad nauseum as it seeks its place in the wider waters of the language.

Thus it was that "disgusting" popped out of Anton with all the rat-tat-tat of a Gatling gun. I got him up one morning and handed him his socks. "That's disgusting!" he lamented. When I asked if he wanted to kick the soccer ball around he declared, "Disgusting!" with the same inflection as if he were saying, "I'd love to!" The capper came one evening when we had friends over for supper. I brought the chicken dish to the table and one of my guests looked at Anton and remarked, "It looks delicious," to which he replied, "It's disgusting!"

Even when vocabulary develops to the point where real communication is possible, there are concepts that remain elusive. Time sense is one of these, as evidenced by this discussion about Christmas, which I had with Anton in July:

Anton: "When is Christmas?"

Dad: "Not for a long time."

Anton: "Tomorrow?"

Dad: "No, in five months."

Anton: "Is that the day after tomorrow?"

Dad: "No. Many tomorrows away."

Anton: "How many?"

Dad: "A lot."

Anton: "Three?"

Dad: "More than three."

Anton: "How many?"

Dad (doing a quick calculation): "One hundred and fifty-one."

Anton: "Tomorrows?"

Dad: "Yes."

Anton: "Is that today?"

Despite such mires, language acquisition is a thing to behold. There are those who assert that children simply parrot others until they have established a useful repertoire of words and phrases. But this is inaccurate. I am convinced that Alyosha had never heard anyone say, "I will crave pizza no more." It was, as far as I know, an original utterance.

In the same way, where on earth did Anton learn how to say, "This toothpaste hates my lip"? Clearly, children do think about language and are capable of creatively building the expressions they need from the language blocks available to them to get their meanings across (such as the idea that the toothpaste was irritating my son's chapped lip).

Anton completed kindergarten last June. He did well, but because of his English-language deficit he had to act out many of his needs. Grabbing a crayon from another child was all he had to work with, since "Will you share that crayon with me?" was as inaccessible to him as the equation for relativity. Likewise, a push substituted for "Please don't stand in my way," and an outbreak of tears conveyed the general message, "I wish I could say something!"

Now, at last, he can say something. In fact, he says many things, and he often says them incessantly, treating his new language like a toy he just can't get enough of. When he began first grade a couple of weeks back, I hovered in the doorway of his classroom after dropping him off. I watched a clutch of boys chatting amiably about whatever 6-year-old boys talk about. And there, in the middle of the huddle, was my own boy, chewing his own share of the fat. And then, in a verbal gesture that might have been a shove only a few short months ago, he turned to one of his friends and asked, "Would you share your crayons with me?" It was the beginning of what might yet be a beautiful friendship.

For me, it is a singular pleasure that the precipitation of Anton's English came in full during the summer. Perhaps I owe something to this season for endowing Anton with a vocabulary of wonder as we swam, canoed, and explored the tangled riverbank behind our home. Just the other day we discovered a toad in the backyard. As I showed Anton how to hold and gently examine the creature, he throbbed with excitement, finally coming out with, "It's so beautiful."

I didn't tell him that, compared with frogs, I had always found toads slightly, er, disgusting.

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