Trips to the country where the language is spoken, feeling the love from everyone there, being able to communicate with peers in that language, and have fun in that language, all this pushes language skills to new levels. The effect of such short stays can linger and then be reinforced by new trips.
2015. The tickets were bought long in advance, in February. The plan was perfect: Martin, the children (3,5 years old at the time) and I would fly to Barnaul, stay there together for 2 weeks, then Martin and I would fly back to Stockholm without the kids. The latter would stay with their Russian grandparents for 5 days and then grandmother Valentina, grandfather Vladimir and great-grandmother Polina would bring Max and Zoë back to Stockholm and stay with us for 12 days.
The reasoning behind the adventure was that Max and Zoë’s Russian would get a real boost since without us there would be no safety net of Swedish. The children would have to use their Russian to make themselves understood.
When we arrived in Russia, Zoë started speaking Russian straight away, and it was clear that she really put her heart and soul into it: she articulated every word, she made her point of only addressing me and other Russian-speakers in Russian. It almost seemed like it was a self-evident thing for her to do when in Russia.
That was not the case for Max. He was reluctant to speak Russian, kept falling into the comfort of the Swedish language, after all there were people around who could understand Swedish, so why bother?! He even announced one day that he only speaks Swedish after Zoë’s remark that she can speak Russian and Swedish. However, as soon as Martin and I left, Max’s Russian started to pick up.
The Russian family had no issues whatsoever understanding Max and Zoë. Max and Zoë were chatting away with their Russian family and hardly missed their parents. It is noteworthy that the children were fully aware of the plan: they knew the stay was a temporary matter, and that soon they would reunite with their parents in Stockholm. Nevertheless, when Max heard Swedish language at Arlanda airport in Stockholm when they landed there five days later, he started jumping up and down in a fit of joy and sheer delight. “По-шведски!!! По-шведски!!!” – he kept shouting (Rus. “In Swedish!!! In Swedish!!!”).
Outcome: Well, to our amazement, after 5 days in Russia without us, Max and Zoë can occasionally speak Russian to each other when we are not involved in the conversation! That would otherwise never happen before the trip. I am not speaking about in-sentence code-switching but rather about a whole conversation happening almost entirely in Russian! Furthermore, when they play “solo” talking, say, to their toys, that also can now happen almost entirely in Russian. Zoë addresses me in Russian about 99%, and Max – about 70% of the times (before the trip the figures were lying at about 50% and 30% respectively, that being purely my subjective estimation). Their vocabularies have been enriched by new words and expressions, their intonation and pronunciation have been “russified” drastically, and, most importantly, their motivation to speak Russian has been boosted thanks to their fortified links with the Russian side of the family. They were truly able to feel themselves part of the Russian family, they are now old enough to appreciate the differences between the two contexts that they were born into. They have been able to feel that they belong in Russia as well as in Sweden.