Family bliss vs. bilingualism

How I am losing the language battle but winning the heritage war

It’s my second Halloween in America in 1994, during PE (you didn’t have to put on workout clothes if you wore a costume) and a couple of middle school girls were dressed like this: 

I inquired who they were supposed to be and they answered “Madonna, obviously.”

After school that day, I asked my mom who Madonna was – and she answered without turning her head, “Madonna is the mother of God.” That weekend when looking through a thick art album, my mom would point Madonna out (see example below) and I’d squint and try to see if she is wearing the pointy bra like the girl in the costume was.

I have so many stories from moving to the US from Russia at the age of 10 in the early 90s - overcoming language barriers, learning a new culture, and struggling to belong, but it is moments like this that I remember with a smile and a good laugh.  

In hindsight, my parents did an incredibly hard thing (as do all immigrants) - they uprooted our family and moved us to what they believed to be a better life. 

And somehow, while figuring out how to survive and what to do on a daily basis, they thought through how to balance where we were from with where we have arrived. For example, to maintain Russian language, they established a rule that we only spoke Russian at home, I was encouraged to keep a diary in Russian, continued to read Russian literature and was enrolled in a Saturday Russian school. At the same time, my mom leaned into the American traditions – we learned about Halloween and tooth fairy, Valentine’s day and Thanksgiving. But we also maintained ours – New Year costumed parties, long dinner parties with lots of toasts, and a strong belief system grounded in grit and perseverance.    

With tremendous gratitude and appreciation for what my parents have done, I set myself up for an interesting challenge as years later, I married an American, who, while incredibly supportive as a spouse, did not share my childhood heritage or language. Even though Adam tried to learn Russian, it was clear that he wasn’t going to become conversant in it.

Of course, the ideal future married state that I abstractly imagined involved a harmonious, bilingual household – where we are not only rich in American and Russian heritage but where our children easily switch between Russian and English – keep up with songs and books in both languages and have a diverse set of friends from both cultures.   

Instead (and for now), we have two energetic, kind, smart, creative English-speaking kids. They have a sharp tongue and a rich vocabulary - in English. They do not speak Russian today, but they certainly know that they get to dress up for a a big New Year’s party, stay up late and say lots of toasts.

How did we get here?   

The question I have struggled with the most in parenthood is:

“How hard should I work for my children to speak Russian and at what cost?”

On paper, this was a no brainer for me as I was raised with absolutisms like “if you speak another language, it is a crime not to pass it on to your children” and “knowing another language has never hurt anyone.”

As I reflect on how I ended up where I am and what’s next, it’s helpful to first discuss why passing on Russian as a second language was important to me, the research of how to do it successfully and the gives and takes that we analyzed to get us to where we ended up. Let’s dig in.

Why do I want to my children to speak to Russian?  

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Communicate with family – My immediate family speaks English, but the next set of grandparents – do not. My kids would have a greater sense of connection to their extended family if they were able to communicate in their native tongue.   

📚 Know Russian heritage and appreciate literature - I love Russian literature, bard songs, jokes, and cultural references. While much of my context is frozen in time, I am able to empathize and understand another set of people on a deeper level and passing that appreciation to my children would be a benefit.  

🤟🏻 Know another language – growing up outside of the United States with a frequent comparison to stereotypes of kids in Europe all speaking multiple languages, I have been indoctrinated into the belief that the more languages you know, the better off you are (science supports this general premise as well). It’s also easier to learn another language at a younger age than later (testament to my Spanish and French being quite mediocre) 

🇷🇺 Be able to travel to Russia and not feel like a foreigner – one day, my children may want to visit Russia – being able to step on that soil with a greater connection through language would be a benefit.  

What is required to accomplish a second language at home?

I thought about what would this take and what kind of investment and compromises would be required to achieve bilingualism.   

  1. Constantly work to to expose my children to the Russian language requiring me to speak and read it to them

  1. Having an immersion system – We would need to find a Russian caregiver or daycare since I was planning to go back to work and my husband is not a Russian speaker. This was always only going to be possible until Kindergarten (at the latest), but I did not underestimate the importance of first 5 years of a kids life    

  1. I also knew (from talking to others and research) that once kids got older, the second language will be a battle to maintain unless there were other kids speaking Russian or other infrastructure around (nearby grandparents or relatives) to reinforce. So fortitude of conviction and prioritization of this was going to be required. 

  1. Over time and as kids got older, there were additional limitations – we wanted our kids to play piano, learn how to ski, have time with friends, do gymnastics, swim, etc. Striking the right balance of activities, priorities and values gets harder and harder as time goes by resulting in a frequent tweaking of what’s in and what's out.  

Research and Observations  

As I was mulling over childcare and approach, I also observed multiple families first-hand as well as read literature including Raising a Bilingual Child to help me get grounded in what this effort takes. Universally I saw that there was a lot of work required to maintain a second language at home and the results were mixed. I broke this down into three patterns that I saw:  

  1. Success - Both parents speak the same language at home (and different language to others as needed) - this is the strongest scenario where kids end up picking up the native language. I have seen this work in my family, as well as with other immigrant friends from other countries.  I have also seen this not work when parents are not strict about this – and frequently default to the society language in their home.   

  1. Success (at least temporarily) - In a mixed household, each parents speaks exclusively in their language to their children and ideally the primary society language is the 3rd language that is spoken outside the home (so imagine mother speaks German, father speaks Japanese and child learns English at school in addition to German and Japanese at home). I have also seen families insist on things like piano or art lessons to happen in the language they are trying to instill being learned. I have seen this work up until a certain age and then the language rebellions begin, draining energy and purpose.   

  1. Goals not reached - Parents together speak the primary society language and then one parent speaks opportunistically with kids in their native tongue when they are alone. I have not seen this work well, however, this is more successful if there is a stay-at-home parent focused on this until school starts.     

What did we do?  

Get a Russian nanny - When we had our first child, we agreed that we will give immersion a shot. So we were thrilled that we found and hired a Russian care giver (who spoke just enough English to be able to communicate with Adam) and because we were able to keep her for 4 ½ years, our oldest got the Russian language foundation. I supported this to the best of my ability (for example, read 10 minutes in Russian at night and if it was just the two of us, I would speak Russian) as did my parents.

Don’t segregate the household - The other key decision I made early on was that the practice of having one parent speak only English and the other parent speak only Russian exclusively in the household and beyond was not for us because:  

  1. As two working parents and early bedtimes, we only got to spend 2 hours as a family together during week days (as bedtimes have gotten later, we are now up to 4). The concept that we would silo our communication for that time was and continues to be unfathomable to me because I don’t think that is right for our family and our dynamics. As someone who has FOMO (fear of missing out), the notion that I would not be able to participate in a conversation between my daughters and husband and laugh with them and have shared context did not compute.    

  1. Candidly, it was also too hard to speak about daily life in my first language. My parents did an amazing job in helping me preserve my language and when we get together – for dinner or a trip - I am fluent and we have a great time. But a very different language is needed when you talk to kids – you are constantly needing to explain, clarify and repeat. It was exhausting for me to do it in Russian so the notion that I would need to do that alone all the time, was too much.  

Pause the language effort - After our first nanny moved on, we had two more Russian speaking nannies with much shorter tenure and when we could not find a Russian nanny, and moved on to English speaking nannies, Russian language departed from our daughters’ lexicon.   

What’s Next? 

For now, I opted for peace and equilibrium in my family and specifically the ease of communication after a long day at work over greater connection between generations. It was not an easy decision, but one that I have embraced and have been vocal about to my parents and extended family – so they understand that I did not leave this ambiguous or to chance, but rather I am being intentional about my choices. I have been grateful to my parents for taking my lead and doing their best to connect with their grandchildren on my terms and not in their preferred tongue. I hope when I age, I give my children the same grace that my parents have given me.

Having said that, I don’t believe that we have closed the door on our kids learning Russian. Youth and time is on their side – tomorrow, we can choose to send them Russian school, do online programming, they may choose to study in Russia when they are older, or maybe they’ll have a Russian partner in life – none of the decisions we have made to date are irreversible. 

Also, I genuinely believe that language is just one piece of my heritage – literature, music, food, toasts at dinner and elaborate New Years’ parties – are still being shared and passed on and are equally if not more important than a language.  

If you are an immigrant or a child of one and face same questions, I see you. There are no right or wrong answers, there is only what’s right for you and your family. Practice self-care and self-compassion as you navigate these tricky waters. Also, please drop me a line if you’d like to compare notes or discuss your journey.  

Coda on privilege   

My family was lucky in that we were not refugees when we moved to the United States, however, so many people then and today are. Life has to be pretty bad in your homeland to choose to start over. So today, I’m highlighting International Rescue Committee - this organization responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future. In more than 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities, dedicated teams provide clean water, shelter, health care, education and empowerment support to refugees and displaced people.