There was a wonderful post over at Planet Smarty Pants a few weeks ago about ways to share parents’ native language with a child. This post inspired me to share our story of raising two children that are bi-lingual.
Both of my children speak Russian , they read and write in Russian at or above their grade level. They are equally proficient in English. They are ordinary children. Henceforth I speak only from personal experience and with anecdotal evidence from my friends.
- Deciding to raise kids bi-lingual and sticking to our decision: My husband and I are both Russian, we speak mostly Russian at home. We’ve been living here in the US for over a decade and consider it home. I home-school kids, so I speak English to them a lot. My husband speaks Russian only to children, no exceptions. In public, if translation is needed for those around us, he will translate for them. When it comes to families of my friends that have dual language household, the most successful attempts at raising children bi-lingual happen when mom or dad speak their language only and translate for their partners. I know families where each parent speaks different language and they communicate in English between themselves- children speak 3 languages. Many American husbands of my Russian friends try to learn at least some Russian. In the end the final decision is up to an individual family, but if anything learning another language together brings family members closer. Bottom line– it can be done.
- Starting early with no fears: We spoke Russian to children since the day they were born. It is tempting and it feels reassuring to “save” Russian until a child is proficient in English. I received such (unsolicited) advice from medical professionals and teachers . But the truth is when a language is foreign, it feels less important and children look at learning it as a chore. English won’t go anywhere, it’s all around, they will learn it, unless they are very isolated. The earlier one starts the better it is. My second child, who is 3 years younger than my first, spoke English much sooner, but Russian still was her first language.
- Include reading and writing: We teach children to read and write in Russian formally. Necessity to speak , read and write Russian is not something that is being debated for us – it is the fact of life. There certainly were doubts for us parents early on– what if children have accents, what if they don’t make friends, what if they do poorly in school. With D., who didn’t speak English until he was five years old we learned that all of these fears were futile, every single one. To teach the language I order formal curriculum from Russia, in my area it can also be found in the library system. It is often available online. I provide instruction in Russian for other subjects too, including math, science and geography. Basically Russian is a Core Subject in our house. There are Russian lessons every single day when we do school at home. Many people use Russian Schools (instruction on weekends), immersion programs and tutors as well.
- Providing opportunities to practice language: We are currently rather detached from Russian speaking community here, as we live too far from the area where the activities are concentrated. We do however have Russian-speaking friends and we cherish these contacts. Extended family is another way to provide opportunity to speak to someone other than mom, dad and siblings. Russian church is another opportunity. I have a few friends with children in Russia, so I encourage my kids to talk to my friends’ kids on Skype and write letters. They think it’s cool to have friends overseas. Many of my friends raising children abroad send their children to visit grandparents in Russia over the summer. Usually after such visits there is a huge leap forward in speaking. Other sources of exposure include games, trips, festivals, performances with visiting theater companies, crafts, cooking. Caregivers that speak the language is another way to go. Anything that connects children to their parents’ language and culture(s) will work.
- Teach culture and language through stories: I have a special request for family and friends who want to send or bring something for children from Russia- please bring a book. I order vast amounts of fiction and non-fiction from Russian online bookstores (paying special attention to illustrations for picture books), we read books online , our library carries some titles in Russian as well. We read aloud, children read on their own and to each other, we listen audio-books. We also watch movies, mostly old ones, they are indeed of quality. We read poetry– both silly poems for the littlest readers and classics such as Pushkin from early age. We talk about poetry and meaning of archaisms that are sometimes used. Russian history is in the curriculum also, D.’s formal lessons will start next year when he will be in 5th grade.
- Reading and writing: With both of my children Russian was the first language they learned to read in. I found that as soon as children master reading in Russian, English reading comes easier too. As children learn to read, they learn to write as well. I admit there is some confusion in earlier grades when English is introduced, because many letters look alike, but later on it all falls in place. Children are encouraged to write often, their mistakes are always corrected, again because bad habits are hard to correct later on. Formal grammar is introduced around grade 2. Children do a lot of copy work too.
- Be patient: Children will protest, they will occasionally feel that speaking English is easier. It frustrates the parent when a child answers in English to a question posed in Russian, or when children speak to family members in English and so on. The culmination of protest usually happens in the end of Kidnergarten for my kids. The key here is not to get upset, or worry that Russian is being lost. One has to be patient, to help the child to find the words to express what they want to say. It is beneficial to gently insist on speaking the same sentence in Russian. I do correct their grammar, so bad habits of not conjugating properly do not settle. It is important to prevent Runglish too, however funny it is. I try not to nag. The most important thing is not to give up.
- Raising bi-lingual children is a hard work, but it is absolutely worth it. Benefits of raising children bi-lingual are many and all efforts pay off. It’s never too late to start too. Have courage, have confidence and try.
Another spots to visit :
If you teach your child a language other than English, please comment, I would love to meet more bi-lingual mamas 🙂