In Masha Rumer’s Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths For Their Children, the author lays out methods for getting American children to speak an immigrant parent’s mother tongue, including: Need, Exposure, Positive Associations, Keeping It Fun, Being Realistic with Expectations, Being Even More Realistic, Making a Plan and Starting Early, Not Going It Alone, One Person/One Language, Heritage Language at Home, Mix It Up, and English Later.
I’m lucky. As a mother of three children with very different personalities, I’ve had many opportunities to fail at several of these approaches.
I was born in the former Soviet Union, and I have tried to get my American-born kids to speak Russian. Not because I want them to comprehend the great literature or listen to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk — we peaked at Doctor Ai-Bolit and Masha ee Medved, and I was just happy when they sang along to The Bremen Town Musicians.
And not because of the research which indicates that “bilingual children are better at focusing, multitasking, and weeding out unnecessary information, skills collectively known as executive function… These executive function skills predict long-term academic success and well being… There’s just nothing more important in terms of how this person is going to do in life.”
I made my valiant attempts for different reasons:
One: I wanted my kids to be able to truly know my parents. Rumer quotes a dad from Cameroon who explains, “The most important thing is my ancestors […] my parents, my father, my grandparents, and the history of the family, where they come from.” A mother from Colombia adds, “I just couldn’t imagine my child not being able to communicate with my relatives.”
And two: I wanted them to know me. And to maybe start to understand why I do things the way I do — and why I might expect the same from them. As Rumer makes clear, it’s impossible to separate language from culture. The words used within a particular culture demonstrate what it values, or demeans.
She writes of a mother who wants her children to know that “their ancient heritage is more than just eating Chinese food.” Another, from Israel, wants kids that “sang in Hebrew, danced traditional dances, and celebrated Shabbat, on top of American holidays.”
There are examples of parents who hire a tutor from Kyiv to teach their child math in Ukrainian, a Persian immersion preschool, kids learning how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors in Cantonese with their grandparents, and an Ethiopian Sunday School where children study Amharic. The founder explains, “You can’t separate language and culture. You must come in and start learning, otherwise it’s just daycare.”
My favorite anecdote from Parenting with an Accent involves Rumer herself enrolling her daughter in a Russian-language ballroom dancing class. She and her fellow parents are not merely interested in their children learning the dance moves; they want to cultivate the discipline that comes with it:
“Oh look, look at how [the teacher] fixes their posture! Our American ballet teacher last year just had them hop up and down,” says a woman in a leopard print sweater. “You twirled? Good job! You showed up to class! Great job! No discipline at all!”
This same non-nonsense attitude is why I love my son’s Cuban ballet school — and he’s even picking up some Spanish, too!
The parents are horrified to overhear, in the middle of the lesson, the teacher switching from Russian to English: “I didn’t drive here all the way from San Francisco so my Alex can learn English!”
Rumer fantasizes that her son “would learn to recite the Cyricilic alphabet. Maybe he’d casually mention the elements in Mendeleev’s periodic table. He might even ask to be put on the phone with his grandparents, to recite a Russian poem, whereupon they would weep with joy.”
Which brings us back to family, which also cannot be separated from culture.
In Parenting with an Accent, Rumer demonstrates that raising a bilingual — or trilingual! — child is a matter larger than the immediate family, larger than the extended family, larger even than the country the language originally came from. In choosing to introduce a non-dominant culture’s language into your child’s upbringing, you are choosing to bring in all the attitudes, the values, and yes, the prejudices that come with it. You are choosing to give your child a secondary — or tertiary — way of looking at the world. You are choosing to make their life richer, and, sometimes, harder. And you are definitely choosing the more labor-intensive parenting path.
Rumer’s book weaves together dozens of parents’ stories, their successes and their failures. In “Chapter Thirteen: Between Two Worlds,” Rumer chronicles her own efforts to find a new moms’ group that would meet her needs for a bilingual, bicultural circle of friends who understood exactly what she was going through.
In Parenting with an Accent, she has created such a circle for all of us.
Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure skating mysteries, and romance novels. She was born in Odessa, USSR, and emigrated with her family to America in 1977. Her latest, The Nesting Dollsis a historical fiction covering three generations of a Russian-Jewish family from the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1970s to present day to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Visit her website at: www.AlinaAdams.com. Read her Substack, here.