I Screwed Up the Bilingual Thing, Too – Kveller
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I Screwed Up the Bilingual Thing, Too

Reading Debbie Kolben’s Forward article “Why My Daughter Isn’t Bilingual–Yet,” I thought to myself: What am amazing coincidence! I too screwed up the bilingual thing! Only Debbie screwed it up once, and I managed to screw it up three times–in three completely different ways!

The basic situation is this: I was born in the former USSR and moved to the US with my parents as a child. Although English came easily for me (the fact that I now write for a living is hopefully evidence of that), I continued speaking Russian to my parents at home, periodically switching into English for complex or uniquely specialized topics. While my Russian wasn’t quite stuck at the level of the 7-year-old I’d once been, I was, at best, in possession of the vocabulary of a pre-teen. (That didn’t stop me from doubling as a translator when I worked as a producer for ABC Sports’ figure skating coverage. My conversations with Olympic champions were never particularly deep. To catch me in action, go to about 8:00 minutes at this YouTube clip.)

I have a brother and a cousin who were born in the US and yet still speak fluent Russian to their parents. I figured, if they could pull off this bilingual thing, so could I.


My oldest son, now 12, had a fulltime, Russian-speaking babysitter from the time he was 3-months-old. I asked her specifically to speak Russian to him, not English. I spoke Russian to him, too. When we were alone, and when the babysitter was around.

But, when my American-born husband was with us, I spoke English. I thought it was rude to exclude him from the conversation.

That was my first, critical mistake.

Once my son realized that I could understand English as well as Russian, all bets were off. He answered my husband in English, he answered me in English, and he even began answering the babysitter in English. (He figured if I was trying to con him by pretending not to comprehend what he was saying, she must be in on it, as well.)

With my second son, the obstacle was different. For reasons unknown to this day, the babysitter who adored my oldest son just didn’t click with my younger. Or he with her. There was a mysterious antipathy between them. As a result, my middle child refused to heed anything she said. And since she said it in Russian, he basically blocked out an entire language.

Seriously. It didn’t matter who was speaking; her, me, my parents, my parents offering him ice-cream… Russian as a concept did not exist. Honestly, if we didn’t know better, we’d have his hearing tested, that’s how good he is at completely tuning out.

He won’t watch Russian cartoons, he won’t listen to Russian storybooks, he just… won’t.

With my daughter, now 5, it was, once again, a love-fest between her and the babysitter (as I said to my husband, “It’s like her four year mysterious bad mood has miraculously lifted.”). But, by the time my daughter came along, I didn’t have the energy to work full-time and raise three children (in any language). So we let the babysitter go (she still calls to chat with my older son and my daughter–my middle one just stares at the wall), and I began working from home, part-time.

This meant that, while the boys were at school, my daughter and I were alone for the bulk of the day. I tried speaking to her in Russian, I really did. But, here’s the thing: Russian is hard for me. It requires a level of concentration and effort that is difficult to maintain for hours at a time–while chasing after a toddler and picking up my other kids and failing at playing Barbie.

I’d start the day full of good intentions, and a few hours in… I’d cave. Before my daughter could speak, I got into the habit of asking her everything in two languages (she must have thought I was very stupid). Once she became verbal (rather early, alas), I would ask her a question in Russian and, if she replied in English, I’d make her repeat it again after me in Russian. That gets tiring. For both of us. But, mostly me.

By the afternoon, after her brothers were home (especially the one engaged in the ongoing linguistic protest), I’d have made the switch to English. Because it was easier.

And, despite my earlier assertion that whatever was easiest for me was best for my kids, I do feel guilty about it.

I feel I should have tried harder. (And I still do try. My daughter gets about an hour of Russian-only before school, and an hour after. That is, if I’m not frazzled or sleep-deprived or just plain, old cranky.) I look at other parents of kids who are truly bilingual, and I ask their secrets.

It does come down to what was mentioned in the Forward piece: One parent has to speak the second language exclusively. No matter where they are or who else is there. And, as I mentioned up top, that’s the part I screwed up. (I do find it key that The New York Times writer who advocated this approach was also not the one who had to do it. It’s his wife who taught their child Chinese, not him; and I gather she’s a native speaker so it was easier for her than English. If I could hand the Russian off to someone else, I’d probably be a more enthusiastic supporter, too!)

But, all hope is not lost! My eldest has recently developed an interest in speaking Russian (my parents took him on a trip this past Summer to Moscow, Kiev and my birthplace, Odessa). He’s trying to put together sentences (and sounding like a confused toddler. With a Georgian accent). But, he is genuinely trying.  And not because he’s being forced to, but because he wants to (which, in educational circles, is always a plus).

Next year, he has to start thinking about applying to high schools. He’s already putting together his list. And right at the top are two New York City public schools that offer Russian as a foreign language.

Maybe I haven’t screwed up. Well, maybe at least not as badly as I thought…

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