My children don't know as much about popular American kids books and shows as their peers. But raising my kids bilingual has given them gifts that mainstream culture probably never could.

By Masha Rumer
January 07, 2020
Illustration by Gluekit; HBO/Everett Collection (1); Alamy (3); Shutterstock (2); Getty Images (3)

My oldest kid recently started learning the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s a little complicated—and not only because it’s got seven more letters than the Latin one. The language comes with a deep culture that I grew up with and want my children to understand. Plus, bilingualism and foreign language literacy require regular exposure, consistency, and, often, a village to keep it going. Like many immigrants, I want to pass down my heritage, and this comes with a cost: an opportunity cost.

This can be a heavy lift in households like mine where we mix languages and where, come morning, children get whisked off to their monolingual preschools and chat away in English all day long (and then insist on speaking it at home, too). It’s no surprise that by the third generation, most descendants of immigrants in the U.S. lose the heritage language altogether. Recent attitudes toward foreigners, like the abhorrent treatment of migrants at the border, nativist rhetoric, and many Americans reportedly feeling irked by non-English conversation in public, don’t exactly champion the bilingualism cause either.

Take Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. This PBS cartoon series is incredibly popular with the youngest viewers, but my kids hardly watched the show, nor did they learn its song about coping with stressful feelings. They also missed out on reading some beloved kid-lit Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. We were late on the "Baby Shark" craze, too. I had no idea what to make of it when adults at the playground sang “Doo doo doo doo doo doo!” while making big chomping motions with their arms. So I did what any self-respecting person would do: smile awkwardly.

“That Sesame Street episode about brushing teeth is a lifesaver for us!” one mom might offer to another one during a playdate. “Don’t you just love it?” everyone agrees, noting that the tune has been a blessing for their toddlers’ bedtime routine. Everyone except me. That's not because my children don’t brush their teeth. It’s because I’d never heard about that song before. The only kid-centric lesson on personal hygiene I knew well enough to pass along came from a Soviet poem written circa 1925, and that isn’t saying much.

Unfortunately, my kids missed these things all because they are in a non-exclusive yet a committed relationship with the Russian language. They commiserated with the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh bear in Russian long before discovering the original by A.A. Milne. They recite lines from Russian nursery rhymes and even an occasional expletive that I ought to nip in the bud (if not for my belief that swearing is the heartbeat of a living language).

In his essay “Us and Them,” writer David Sedaris talks about growing up with weird neighbors on the block. They, the Tomkeys, don’t watch television and fail to grasp basic cultural references as a result. They are the outsiders. “What must it be like to be so ignorant and alone?” Sedaris muses while spying on them through the window.

Are we the Tomkeys, I sometimes wonder? Instead of molding strange letters out of Play-Doh, should I be taking my children to an American library singalong? Would it be more socially useful if I read to them about Cat in the Hat instead of tsars or the little-known berry known as gooseberry? Is foreign language literacy for a young kid sort of like stamp collecting, what some would call "interesting?" When families, especially those working outside the home, spend their limited hours together on foreign language activities, do they miss out on the mainstream stuff? Maybe. But does it make them worse off for it? Absolutely not.

Bilingualism has lots to offer, from cognitive to social perks. It also sparks myriad connections, a kinship with the enormous world beyond the immediate field of vision. Its benefits can't always be counted, but they are irrefutable. You can’t measure, for example, the value of singing a folk song with your great-grandfather or show the return on investment of sharing multigenerational recipes, oral histories, and jokes.

But then there are moments when my children ask for a third helping of borscht, a staple soup of my birthplace. I look at the empty bowls and know they mean it. It’s unlikely that in the backs of their minds, they’re thinking, “We’d really prefer mac and cheese like our friends do, but we know how much this pink liquid with cabbage and onion pieces swimming in it means to our mom, and she did cook up one and a half gallons of this crap, so what the hell.” It’s just soup, but indescribable magic happens when tiny individuals express affinity for an old family recipe, in its authentic language, even if it’s imperfect. Same goes for that moment when my kid wrote her first word in Russian, “milk” (accompanied by a drawing of a crooked cow) and beamed proudly.

Sure, they might miss a few mainstream experiences while spending time with another language and culture. But everything is a trade-off, whether we’re talking about meal planning or ways to spend a Saturday afternoon. There isn’t always one best option. It’s a strange concept in our guilt-ridden culture of American parenting, saturated with rankings and the FOMO that seems to lurk behind every decision. I remind myself these things whenever I question the usefulness of the gooseberries and funky letters.

“Can we read the Russian alphabet book tonight?” my daughter says, handing me the blue hardcover, the one with 33 characters. “When we learn all of the letters,” she adds quietly, “will you buy me a present?”

Sure, I promise, and we make our way through the pages. I’ve got no clue what gift to get a child who’s learning a language that only a fraction of people in her universe will ever understand. But it’s only a matter of time until she’s down to the last character, and then we’ll celebrate, for reasons that are truly immeasurable.

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