NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio recently kicked off Russian Heritage Month by proclaiming that, “it’s about time government and municipal agency forms and documents be translated into Russian.” He added that NYC is the ultimate city of immigrants and that Russian immigrants keep the city strong.
When my family and I emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1977, I was 7 years old and didn’t speak a word of English. No, that’s not true. I knew two words: “apple,” because it was on the first page of my English alphabet book, and “the,” because, for the life of me, no one could explain what it meant. And no one around me could pronounce it correctly.
In 1977, it was believed that the best way to learn a new language was through complete immersion. I was put into second grade, into a class where I was the only kid who spoke Russian. (I was one of just two Russian-speaking students in the entire school.)
Was I happy about this development? No, I was not. Did I make my unhappiness clear to the adults around me? Yes, I did. Did I cry every morning and complain of stomach aches? Yes, I did. Did I act up in class? Yes, I did. Did I write my compositions in Russian? Yes, I did. Did I sneak Russian books under my desk and read them while the teacher was talking? Yes, I did.
Did I learn English?
Yes. I did.
I started school in January. By June of that same year, I remember standing up to tell the class that my little brother had just been born. In accentless English.
My parents and I were members of what was called the First Wave of Soviet Jewish immigrants, the ones that came in the 1970s (it was, in fact, the generation that was being celebrated at the Russian Heritage Month opening de Blasio attended). The next wave didn’t commence until the late 1980s, post-Perestroika. Many of our family members and friends came then.
But, a change had taken place between the 1970s and 1980s. Learning English via immersion was out. The new academic buzzword was English as a Second Language (ESL). With ESL, instead of being integrated into regular classrooms, kids who didn’t speak English were segregated and taught in their own language. The rationale was that being with fellow native speakers would make kids feel less isolated socially and presumably cut down on the crying, the stomach-aches, the disruptions, and the deliberate tuning out. It would also allow the children’s education in subjects like math, science, history, etc. to continue uninterrupted, since they would be receiving instruction in their own language.
Our friends and relatives’ children didn’t learn English in a few months. They didn’t learn it in a few years. Some of them graduated high school unable to pass TOEFL, the English proficiency exam given to international students to prove they could handle an American college curriculum. (The ones who did manage to pull off adequate SAT scores despite leaving most of the Verbal section blank were able to coast on their Eastern European math skills, where SAT-level algebra and trigonometry is mastered in much lower grades).
Of course, for those who chose to stay in their own ethnic enclave, they didn’t really need to know English. In Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, for instance, I’ve met kids born in the US who still speak with accents, because anything anyone needs can be gotten in Russian. To be honest, it drives me insane.
Because not teaching immigrant (and American-born) children to speak proper English limits what they can do with their lives and how far they can go.
Bill de Blasio wants to make Soviet immigrants’ lives easier by translating municipal agency documents into Russian. I presume he is talking about applications for welfare, Section 8 housing, citizenship, etc. I know all about those forms, because I used to go with my grandparents to the Social Security office to translate for them when I was a little girl (the story of how I once accidentally said the wrong thing and almost caused my grandmother to lose her benefits, which prompted my crying hysterically, wracked with guilt, for hours, is another post for another time).
You know what having those forms not be available in English eventually does? It makes people learn English. Yes, even old people, who have a much harder time of it than kids. When they need to do it, they do it. Which both sets a good example and cuts excuses from the younger generation off at the knees.
Government printing forms in Russian explicitly sends the message that learning English isn’t necessary for success in America. (And let’s not even get into the fact that, if the government is printing things in your native language and keeping you from learning English, it makes it much easier for them to control what you read–and how you vote).
English is vital to success in America. And while not everyone needs to–or may want to–become Sergey Brin (born in Moscow; emigrated at 6) or WhatsApp’s Jan Koum (born in Kiev; emigrated at 16) or even Mila Kunis (born in Ukraine; emigrated at 7)–learning English at least gives you the option to pursue whichever happiness, professional and personal, you like (how American!) without any extraneous hurdles (God knows, life throws enough of those without an added language barrier).
But, as long as we live in America, they will study English first. So that, when they grow up, they’ll have a choice.