Almost Fearless

Living Bilingual With Your Children Before You Travel



Ya lyublyu tebya is my five-year-old daughter Anna’s favorite phrase. It means “I love you” in Russian. How did I end up with a five-year-old who speaks Russian, fluently for three years now, when neither her father nor I do? The desire to provide a bilingual upbringing began before she was born, but developed quite organically in her second year of life.

Today, Olia and Anya bounce around my living room, chattering and laughing at something that I’m sure is quite funny. Anya is the Russian nickname for my five-year-old daughter, Anna, and Olia is her nanny. Anya jumps on the couch and keeps jumping, prompting Olia to change her tone and pull out her pointer finger. Anya complies, jumping to the floor while shouting “mukuka!”, a nonsense word from the library book they’ve just read and laughing as though she just said the most clever thing in the world. “Mommy, guess what? Mukuka!” she laughs. “Po-russki” I remind her, asking her to speak Russian, but she is far too excited to hear me.

Olia has become a part of our family since she first agreed to watch Anna when she was just 18 months old. Olia is a diamond in the rough, a Russian woman with experience across three continents as an au pair. At our interview, I asked if she would be interested in speaking to Anna primarily in Russian, as second language learning had been one of our top desires for Anna when choosing a childcare provider. When she responded with, “Can I really?”, I knew we hit on a match.

Anna learned quickly, counting in Russian just a few months after first saying her numbers in English. At first, I had no trouble keeping up with her emerging toddler Russian. Hi. Bye. No! Do you need to go potty? Come here. Mermaid. But too quickly she surpassed me, speaking in sentences, conjugating verbs and nouns and using the correct declensions just as a native speaker would. Olia would often report how Anna was speaking more Russian than her niece who lived in Russia! It was then that I realized that even though we could not yet move overseas and learn a second language as a family, we had found a way to bring language and culture into our own home.

We set out on a quest to learn more about the culture. We quizzed Olia endlessly, sampled Russian food, and celebrated Christmas on January 7 with Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost, and his granddaughter Snegurochka, The Snowmaiden. We continue to study and attend the world famous Russian Nutcracker with family and friends. We gather with Russians who are in town visiting friends to practice a few words.

We check out Russian children’s books from the library. I sit with the books and sound out each letter, sounding like kindergartners across the world learning to read. I still don’t have the comprehension of what I’m reading, but I’m getting there and Anna is always ready to correct my pronunciation until it gets too boring and she asks me to “Please stop talking Russian, mommy.” My husband and I downloaded apps to help us learn the Cyrillic alphabet and watch YouTube videos, trying to learn new words to impress Olia the next time she comes over to our home. To her credit, she always acts very impressed, much to our delight.

We are committed to breaking the monolingual trend in our families. We’ve both struggled as adults to learn foreign languages – Spanish for me and Mandarin for my husband – and had to spend time cross-culturally to gain even conversational proficiency. By bringing the language into our home, we have all benefited. When we take our next trip, which, of course, will be to Russia, we may find ourselves relying on our young child to interpret for us, which is motivation enough to study and practice with our own built-in language coach. Our next goal is to find a way to introduce a third language to Anna. She has already taken some immersion classes in Spanish but interestingly about half of the words come out with a Russian accent.

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Living bilingual has become such a natural part of our lives that we always are a bit surprised when others look on in amazement as if either our daughter is a genius or we have this parenting thing all figured out. We are far from perfect or all-knowing and it’s too early to tell if Anna might be a genius, but we hope that language learning at an early age will be to her advantage as she ages, laying down brain pathways that aren’t often used in a monolingual culture.

Anna is gifted with speech and has always had a strong interest in verbal communication with everyone she meets. Giving her access to additional languages provides her with the opportunity to converse with more people. We feel it is important to find your child’s gifts and interests and give them opportunities to grow. And we do our best to keep up.

There is no single correct way to introduce a language to your children, but we feel we have found a way that works for our family. Whether you travel full-time, part-time, or once a year, there are options to learn and experience bilingualism authentically. There is a global network right outside your door!

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Mandy Mooneyham

Mandy Mooneyham is a recent drop out of the medical professional life and now works full time as a freelance writer. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas with her husband and daughter and is currently working on learning Spanish and Russian. She has lived in the Caribbean and Central America, and they are currently trying to go to at least one new place every year.

1 comment

  • It’s great to read how this is working for you. We are trying to get our kids to continue with Spanish after spending six months in Mexico. We have hit a snag as our five year old now yells, ‘stop speaking Spanish. Only English in England’. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do, his response is always the same. Handily I’ve just figured out how to turn our tv in to a Spanish tv, so hopefully that’ll help and moving back to Mexico will force it anyway!