My kids do speak Russian. Don’t take it personally.

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Camille Pissarro, Children in a Garden

By Ilya Frank

The recent post by Oleg got me thinking about our own choices and why they are different from his. It is not that I think Oleg is wrong to make the choices he made. However, I do want to add a different perspective and explain why my wife and I made different choices, though we come from a similar background.

I arrived in US in 1992 at the age of 14. My wife arrived a year earlier, at the age of 9. I still retain my accent, while my wife has lost hers. While we both speak Russian as a native language, we are both long past the period where speaking Russian is still easier than speaking English. After a short, abortive attempt to speak Russian to each other during our first date, we have been conversing almost entirely in English with each other.

When our first child was born seven years ago, we were faced with the same choice as Oleg, and every other Soviet immigrant that has kids – do we raise them as Russian- or English-speaking? Unlike Oleg, we chose the former. We don’t have any regrets about this choice seven years later. Our daughter is fluent in both English and Russian, while our five-year old son is currently almost entirely Russian-speaking, though he’ll be learning English very soon as he enters kindergarten.

Oleg offers two main reasons why people choose to raise Russian-speaking kids. “I was told that I have to teach my kids Russian so they know their roots and heritage. Another argument is that teaching kids a foreign language early helps with their mental development.” I agree that these are the two main reasons. When it comes to Russian heritage, this was not a priority for us. Sure, we have fond memories of some childhood cartoons, movies, and food, but I can’t say that either of us is very much in touch with our Russian roots and heritage. However, we do believe that it is beneficial for many reasons for kids to grow up bilingual, it adds a different perspective and it IS good for mental development. Of course it is not required, and perfectly bright kids can grow up without a second language. But given an opportunity most people in the United States don’t have, why would we deny them? Russian is the language we both speak, and Russian is the language we decided to pass on to our kids. If we spoke a different language, be it French, or Swahili, then we would teach them that language. But Russian is the language we have, so Russian is going to be the one they learn.

Oleg says that “Language carries with itself a culture.” To some extent, that’s probably true, but I don’t think there’s anything intrinsic about it. Language and culture are usually passed on together, which confuses the subject. I think it’s possible to raise the kids with a certain language without also passing on the entire culture that is associated with it. We raise the kids with our values, not the values of the Russian homeland we left behind, or the values of the Russian immigrant community if those values conflict with ours. Do they come into more contact with those values than they would if they did not speak Russian? Perhaps to some extent they do. They pick up things from their teachers in Russian day care, from Russian cartoons they have watched, Russian books they read. There is some risk that they will pick up attitudes we consider harmful, but I think we can do a good job of passing on our own values and explaining the difference.

So yes, we made a conscious effort to make sure they speak Russian. They went to a Russian daycare, they participated in Russian musical theater, they spent a lot of time with grandparents and other Russian-speaking kids. My daughter also went to a Russian dance studio, and we sent her to a Russian speaking camp for a part of last summer. She also has a Russian teacher that comes to our house once a week and gives her a private lesson. As a result, she is fluent in both languages, and can read and write in both languages as well. Her English was not negatively impacted in any way, she is in fact way ahead of most kids, when it comes to English reading.

Of course, the choice we made is not without its challenges. The occasional old country attitudes they pick up in their day care is one example. We had to hire an English tutor for my son, to make sure he doesn’t feel unable to communicate when he enters kindergarten in the fall. Our daughter is now entering that “I don’t want to speak Russian” age, which adds some frustration all around. Remembering to speak Russian around the kids is sometimes hard and annoying, and we don’t always have the necessary vocabulary and fluency to express some of the more complex things we want to express – a problem that comes up more and more often as the kids get older.

While learning Spanish or another language in school is often brought up as an alternative, I do not believe that it’s the same. As someone who learned and promptly forgot several languages when no opportunity to practice them was available, I think there is something very different about learning a language from childhood, being immersed in it, and having a family around you with whom you can practice. It is not a guarantee of success, but it improves the chances of language retention, and gives you a fluency that is almost impossible to get when it comes to learning a language in school later in life (unless you are also immersed in this language).

I don’t know how much Russian they will retain in the long run. I’ve met a number of people who were either born in the US to Russian-speaking families, or came at a very young age. Results vary greatly, but most of them can at least understand Russian, if not fully speak it. I don’t remember any of them complaining about being able to understand another language. I don’t think anyone ever had a problem in their life because they spoke too many languages. I hope my kids retain as much of it as possible.

Also, bilingual kids are nothing new or unusual, at least in the Bay Area where we live. My daughter’s classmates speak a number of languages at home – Spanish, Mandarin, Swedish, and others. There are many bilingual kids all around us, and I think it’s great that they can retain their parents’ language. They are all fluent in English as well.

I also know a number of families, both Russian speaking and not, that made a different choice. They did not make learning Russian a priority, and I don’t have any issues with that. I agree with Oleg that it’s rude to tell people how they should raise their kids, and I would never say “Надо учить!”. There’s already enough holy wars going on between different parenting philosophies, without any need to add another.

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