Nowadays, when most people (particularly adults) refer to the importance of learning multiple languages, they mainly view it as a useful job skill. In reality though, it is so much more. Language is a mode of communication, expression, and last but definitely not least: cultural preservation.
In a sense, my “teenage rebellion” began at the age of three. No, I did not escape through my bedroom window in order to go to wild parties or talk back to authoritarian figures. Instead, I started attending a preschool in which I was exposed to the English language for most of the day.
To elaborate on my background, both my parents and grandparents are Ukrainian immigrants. While my parents can speak English fluently and almost without an accent, my grandparents can only speak and understand basic English. Hence, due to being mainly surrounded by Russian-speaking people, Russian was the only language that I could understand up to that point in my life. As a result, my parents enrolled me in preschool so that I could not only start learning about American acedamia, but also so that I could become integrated into the American culture and language.
Fast forward a couple of years, and because I was in elementary school and did not know how to speak, read, or write Russian well, my parents still wanted me to study this language in my free time. Thus, every weekend I would sit down with my dad, scribble in a writing workbook, and read Russian fairy tales. I would enjoy this weekly practice, but I was unable to see the importance of it in my life, since none of my friends or anyone else who I knew of in my community also understood Russian. Thus, using my all-too-common excuse, “I’m too busy,” in middle school, I was eventually able to convince my parents that I should not have to study Russian anymore.
When spoken to at a family gathering, I would constantly have to reply in English, since while I could understand Russian, I couldn’t speak it comfortably. Plus, whenever a family member would ask my parents why it was that I could not hold a conversation in Russian, I would merely roll my eyes internally.
However, as I have grown a bit older, I have come to realize that their imposition, which at the time was annoying, was, and is, truly an important one. Because at school, I’m only given the choice of a few languages to learn (Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Latin) and it can be difficult to see the value in remembering the language of my relatives and ancestors. However, being fluent in my native tongue could have been an advantageous tool for learning from my elders, understanding my heritage more clearly, and eventually passing on the values of my culture onto future generations.
Now, if my dad comes home from a busy day at work and I happen to have an open slot of time in my schedule, I often ask, “would you mind helping me understand this Russian book?”
“Sure.” He always replies with a nod and a small, yet conspicuous, smile.