It’s assumed that just because I grew up speaking Russian that it was always easy for me to speak Russian. No way!
My parents’ Soviet immigrant friends liked to talk about how well their children spoke Russian. These dinner parties were horrible for me as a kid because there was such a negative complaining tone to them. My parents friends would usually criticize the US educational system for being such a joke. I agree that most schools are horrible, but I felt like an idiot when they talked about how much smarter Soviet kids were compared to American ones. Other criticisms would be about how little Americans knew of world geography, culture, history, etc.
Among all their problems of having separated themselves from their families behind the Iron Curtain, thinking they’d never see them again combined with problems of chronic unemployment, they all talked about how they got their kids to speak in Russian.
Well, guess whose Russian was criticized and ridiculed openly?
Yes, me, the girl who went on to speak seven languages.
“My son was born here in Texas and he speaks better than you do and you were born in Russia”, one mother said to me with a look of disgust beaming from her big brown eyes.
Ironically, her Texan-born son dropped out of high school and got tattoos all over his arms. He speaks broken Russian.
Two professional Russian language instructors who were friends with my parents complained that I didn’t speak to them in the formal tense. They had plenty of other disdain for me and my behavior.
The adult son of one of those instructors was homeless for a while in the MidWest. He’s now mentally unstable and menaces my mom by telling her that his father had been in the KGB.
As an adult, I can discount the comments of my parents’ friends as garbage, especially when I see the results of their poor parenting and the disappointments their own children grew up to be. But as a kid, their words were piercing, showing me how I failed at speaking a language I had never truly formally learned.
Looking back on it now, it’s amazing that I didn’t develop a block to languages, especially Russian, because of my parents’ annoying friends.
How to move from ridicule to language mastery
I know that other kids who were born abroad and brought up in their adopted country or who were born in a country to immigrant parents, experience the same struggles that I did to maintain our “heritage” language without a formal learning program to supplement what we hear at home.
I’ve heard from others that they are afraid to say something because they were made fun of by relatives, family friends or others because of their language mistakes. They feel like they are disappointing their cultural community because they can’t speak correctly.
First of all, parents, DON’T COMPARE YOUR CHILDREN. Don’t let your friends and family make bad comments about your children in front of them. One off-handed remark can reverberate for years in harming the self confidence of your children.
Find fun activities that your children like to give them a chance to actually like the language. Shoving it down their throat may appear to be the most efficient way to get them to learn grammar and vocabulary, but it is boring and may totally alienate your children from the language.
If you have small children, find fun children’s programs like an international version of Sesame Street for them to like. Get cartoons from your home country or look for them on You Tube.
For older children, find popular music, TV programs and movies for them to like and enjoy watching.
For those who want to improve their heritage language, look at your local community college to see if there is a class like “Spanish for native speakers”. Several heritage language programs exist to help people like me to formally learn the structure of our language that we don’t formally know. Find conversation groups with other language learners where you can practice in a safe environment.
Get your grove in your language and find TV series, movies, music, podcasts or other media programs you can get hooked on.
Laugh at those who make fun of you.