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One is good, two is better: how to convince an American child to learn their parents' native language

Moving to another country, mixed families - these are the main reasons when the native languages ​​of parents and children are different. A child often does not understand why he needs to learn Russian or Ukrainian, if most of his life is spent in an English-speaking environment. ForumDaily visited three schools near Washington: Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish. In each of them, we asked the same question: how to motivate the child to learn the mother tongue of the parents? The methodology for each of the schools was different.

Russian school: you can easily pull the fish out of the pond

I don’t want to, I won’t, don’t force me. Danila, 20, taught Russian since childhood, but often against his will. Kateryna Pyankevich, his Russian-speaking mother, says: it was 12 years of struggle. She read books to him, took him to a Russian school, hired a tutor, did homework with the boy and was sure that all her efforts in the future would pay off. And so it happened.

Now Danila is studying in Prague, is fluent in two languages ​​and teaches the third. Photo: from the personal archive

Now Danila is studying in Prague, is fluent in two languages ​​and teaches the third. Photo: from the personal archive

“It took 12 years to endure, to sit in the lessons, which he often disrupted. And now he says: Mom, how grateful I am to you that I have two languages, ”says Katerina.

Her husband is British, and the family has lived in England for over ten years, and recently moved to America, Virginia. That is, her son spent his entire adult life in an English-speaking environment, but thanks to the persistence of his mother, he speaks two languages. “Danila entered the university in Prague. Learning Czech with knowledge of Russian is easy for him, and he already has two languages ​​on his resume, which increases his value on the market, ”Katerina is sure.

Knowledge of Russian can be used in American school and college

Now she has sent her youngest daughter to the Russian school “Perspective” in Virginia. The study here is serious - children study according to the general education program of Russian schools, adapted textbooks for foreigners are not used. Director Anna Karlen believes that they are not always of high quality, and is not going to lower the bar. Anna is originally from Moscow, but has been living in the States for over 20 years, where her children were born. Therefore, the question of how to interest a child in Russian is not only professional, but also personal.


Lisa (right) successfully passed the exam in Russian. Photo: Lesya Bakalets

Her 12-year-old daughter Lisa is fluent in Russian. Like all students of the school, every Saturday at nine in the morning she is already in class. And no matter how much you want to have an extra day off, the girl knows: the Russian school can provide concrete practical benefits. She passed the exam World Language exam, which confirmed the level of the Russian language. “We had to write two essays in Russian: the first on the topic“ What did we do during the holidays ”, the second -“ What would you show foreigners in your native country, ”says Lisa. The girl showed a good result in her American school, and she was released from studying a second foreign language in the school curriculum.

According to the same scheme, you can not learn a second foreign language and in college after passing the exam. Advanced placement exam .

“If they have Russian, then a second language in college is no longer required. Thus, you can shorten your study time or choose other subjects, ”explains Anna Karlen.

The exam is standard for all of America and includes an interview, a test and the ability to translate from language to language. Of all the school students, only 4 people have passed it so far.

The smaller the child, the easier it is to interest him.


Yulia 2,5, and the girl speaks fluently both in Russian and in English. Photo: Lesya Bakalets

Two-year-old Julia first danced to a Russian song, then, together with other children, tried to sing something, and then sat down to have a snack. She goes to the kindergarten at “Perspective”, and her mother Irina accompanies her classes. A woman is sure: the earlier you start learning a language, the better the result will be.

“I realized through bitter experience: when the eldest son was growing up, we lived in a city where there were no Russians at all and, as a result, at the age of eight he understood Russian tolerably well, but practically did not speak. With the youngest, I decided not to make such a mistake, ”says Irina.

Irina is married to an American, and Julia speaks to her mother in Russian, and to her father in English. The baby jumps from language to language easily, without mixing words. She already speaks Russian better than her 8-year-old brother, and so far sees school as fun.

Don't read "Kolobok" in Russian - use language to tell children something new

One of the reasons why children, and especially adolescents, lose interest in Russian is the discrepancy between the general and linguistic levels of development. “When you are 12 years old, and you cannot read anything more complicated than Kolobok, because you can’t read Russian well, it’s a mismatch. Then you need to leave Kolobok alone and do in Russian what you do not know in English, ”the teacher Yulia Dunaeva is sure. She is from Moscow, taught English literature in Malta for 17 years and has been living in the States for several years now. Julia has long come up with a formula for herself - if you give children something that they can then shine with in an American school, they will simply run to Russian.

“I have several excellent pupils, I will name them some term, and they will immediately: is there such a thing in English? I say yes, and I give an example. They write it down right away, and I can already see how they tell later in an American school and boast that they learned this in Russian lessons, ”the teacher continues.

In general, the successful study of Russian is dependent on three factors: parents, teachers and the child himself. If the parents control, first of all, themselves and speak with the children only in Russian, if the teacher is able to motivate and explain in an accessible way, and the child wants to teach, the result will not be long in coming.

Jewish school: Hebrew - the language of God

Six-year-old Maxim does not have to be dragged to Sunday school by force. He agrees to wake up early in the morning and spend half a day in the classroom. His grandmother, Irina Feldman, explains: the child is interested in everything related to Judaism. And she is sure that in their large and unorthodox family he will be the first to speak Hebrew. The boy perceives language in a special way.

“If I say to my grandson: do you know that that person over there now speaks Hebrew? - then it just starts to shine. She says it's God's language, ”says Irina.

And a woman likes this attitude. “For us, this is not 'another language'. For us, this is part of being Jewish. So that he feels that he belongs to something, so that he has an understanding of who he is, ”explains Irina.

There are school friends, so there are no questions - why go there

Maxim, like the twins Lisa and Isaac, attends the Shalom Jewish school in Maryland. The question "why go here?" in children, too, has not yet occurred. Moreover, they obviously like it here.

“Lisa and Isaac are five years old, and they are interested in everything. At this age, they somehow all organically turns out", Says their mother, Maria Makavoz. She is sure that the environment in which children find themselves at school is very important. After the second or third lesson, they made friends here. And now they are waiting for Sunday to see them again.

Neither Masha nor her husband Vadim speak Hebrew, and they are not going to make the children know the language perfectly either. Masha says: the practical benefits of knowing Hebrew their children will not receive. “Hebrew is, of course, not a plus to the salary. What is this plus? And it doesn't mean anything for a resume. " But language, in their opinion, is a part of culture, and in order to understand it better, at least the basics need to be known.

“If they don’t speak, for example, Russian, then I will be very sorry. But if they forget that they are Jews, it will be just a tragedy for me, ”Vadim says.

His opinion coincides with the point of view of the school director Ella Kagan. She says that Hebrew is really taught here rather as a tool for understanding Jewish culture. Every Sunday 90 students from 3 to 17 years old come to school. First, children are sent to kindergarten, where they begin to learn Russian. This is one of the features of the school: teaching two languages ​​at once. From the age of six to seven, at the request of the parents, you can take additional Hebrew classes. But Jewish traditions and history are taught to everyone. “Children don't understand who they are: Americans, Russians, or Jews? It means that we need to create an environment that explains that they have two cultural roots - Russian and Jewish, ”explains Ella Kagan.

There are no standard exams at the school. The only criterion that determines the knowledge of the language is whether the child is ready for the bar mitzvah. “During the ritual, you need to read the Torah, make a speech and prayer. They have been preparing for this for a whole year. And children can go through this ceremony only when they know how, at least, to read in Hebrew, ”says Ella Kagan.

Just 15 minutes a day is enough for progress

Professor Robert Leavey prepares for the traditional Jewish ceremony of a boy or girl attaining religious majority at Shalom School. He understands that after five days at school, studying on Sunday does not cause much joy for children, so he needs to try very hard to win their attention. “They already have a school with regular teachers for a whole week. That's why I'm teaching the lesson in a different way. I sit them in a circle, I sit next to them to be on the same level with them, and we communicate. Sometimes I have donuts hidden for them, ”he says.

At the first lesson, he always asks students to write a short story on the topic “Why do I go here”. Then, before the bar mitzvah, they again answer the same question. Robert says the lyrics are completely different:

“The first text is most often with the words“ my parents make me ”. But the second is “I want to know Hebrew, I want to go through the Bar Mitzvah to feel like a part of society and to be able to later teach the traditions of my children.”

Ukrainian school: language as a way to save the community

Sarah with her husband Oleg and children. Photo: from the personal archive

Sarah with her husband Oleg and children. Photo: from the personal archive

Personal example - this is how Sarah from Pennsylvania motivates her sons Andrey and Theodore to learn Ukrainian. She is an American woman without Ukrainian roots who speaks Ukrainian perfectly. “Yes, I am often complimented that I have no accent,” she admits with a smile.

Even after school, Sarah went to the Soviet Union for a year on an exchange and ended up in a Lviv family. There I learned the language. Then she returned again - to the university and to work. In total, she lived in Ukraine for seven years. Her husband is Ukrainian, and they speak Ukrainian in the family.

“It’s easy for me to speak Ukrainian, when I lived in Ukraine, I even dreamed of dreams in Ukrainian,” she says. At the same time, she remembers - she learned the language by ear rather than from textbooks, and the greatest progress was made by the language environment. Therefore, the family tries to travel to Ukraine twice a year - to visit relatives.

“My children in real life understand the benefits of the language - otherwise, for example, they simply will not be able to talk with their grandparents from Ukraine,” she explains.

And the eldest son, Andrew adds: there are friends, to communicate with whom Ukrainian is needed. That's why the boy goes to school on Saturdays. He is not without pleasure doing his homework and reading Ukrainian books. “Now it is“ The Martian ”in translation, and my brother reads“ Harry Potter ”- also in Ukrainian,” says Andriy.

He also enjoys speaking a language that no one at his American school knows. “It's great - when we speak Ukrainian among ourselves, and those around us don't understand what we are talking about.”

Speaking with children only in Ukrainian - more chances for success

Sarah's children attend the Taras Shevchenko School in Maryland. She is one of the oldest in America. Language, history, geography, Ukrainian songs and dances have been taught here for over 50 years. Thanks to the existence of the school, more than one generation of the Ukrainian diaspora began to speak Ukrainian.

Andrei brought her two sons here - 11-year-old Andrey and 8-year-old Peter. She herself is from a family of emigrants, and she was taught Ukrainian at home - her parents spoke exclusively in her native language.

“The parents simply did not leave us a choice: if I spoke to them in English, they simply did not answer me. I am doing the same with my sons now, ”continues Andrei.

She admits it is a rigorous but effective method. The young woman understands how her children now feel, because she once also rebelled against learning the mother tongue of her parents in childhood. “But now I am grateful to them for knowing Ukrainian,” she says.

Ukrainian school is not just lessons. This is a weekly meeting of the Ukrainian community: someone brings children here, someone works here, everyone has known each other for a long time and are friends. “You know, my children want to come here. They have “weekend friends” here, and they see that their parents communicate with each other, we celebrate the holidays together. We are all like one big family, ”says Andreja.

Preserving the Ukrainian community is the main goal of the school, says its director Oleg Voloshin. He is one of the few teachers born in Ukraine. Most of the parents and teachers are representatives of the diaspora.

“Most of the students here are already the third generation of immigrants. We stick together, we get married, our children are friends, ”he says.

The director says: both teachers and children have a common understanding that only a few will know Ukrainian perfectly. Voloshin's son, Ostap, is now in the 5th grade, and the director is sure that he will speak good “diaspora Ukrainian” - with Americanisms, using incorrect endings and cases, but he will definitely speak. The main thing is to hold out in school until adolescence. “The most important thing is that up to the age of 14 the child is in the Ukrainian environment, then he will retain knowledge. If you leave school early, all your previous efforts will be nullified, ”he says.

It is also possible to improve the American diploma at the expense of the Ukrainian language.


In Ukrainian class in the 5 class. Photo: Alexander Yanevsky

The Ukrainian school works according to a program specially designed for the diaspora. Upon graduation, you need to take an exam - matura. But despite the result, the very fact of being at school can greatly help a child with basic education.

“In America, the trust system works well - if you bring a certificate that you have studied for 11 years in a Ukrainian school, and no matter how you passed the exams there, this certificate is credited to you as knowing a second foreign language,” says school director Oleg Voloshin.

Also, Ukraine is now one of the most talked about countries in the United States, and knowledge of Ukrainian can help you find a good government position. But these are still secondary reasons for learning a language. Oleg Voloshin says there are many Ukrainian organizations in Washington and the nearest states that need new people, and the diaspora itself as a whole needs a new generation that will pass on knowledge, traditions and language.

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