Linguistic Background (Judy Barant)

Although I was born and raised in and around New York City, my parents emigrated here from Russia in the late 80’s making me a first generation American. My parents moved here with almost no comprehension or capacity for the English language. However, like many other immigrants to New York, they initially moved in with family that had emigrated earlier and had established themselves to some extent. My father and mother both learned most of their initial spoken English through watching television. Both my parents attended graduate programs here and were able to get a better understanding of English, especially in its written form. My mother in particular even did some speech therapy some years later in order to lessen her accent so she could speak to her patients in a way she felt would be more professional.

Since my parents hadn’t yet lived here very long when I was born, and my grandmother looked after me most of my infancy and childhood my first language was Russian. I only began to learn English when I began attending kindergarten, having prior only attended a Russian preschool. My mother told me that it was no hinderance to me and I picked up English almost immediately, speaking better english than my parents in only a few months. Although I could speak Russian fluently, only my grandmother had tried to teach me to both read and write as well. As I attended more school, spent less time with my grandmother, and spent more time with english speaking friends I didn’t get to practice my Russian as often. I do still speak Russian fairly well, however I can sense that I’m slowly losing and forgetting words as it becomes more difficult for me to speak without thinking. I don’t believe I have an accent in English at all, other than a New York dialect maybe, but I do have a small American accent when speaking Russian because I use it less often now.

I have a deep appreciation for having the rich cultural background I have and the ability to speak two different languages; even though that wasn’t so much the case when I was a child. I was never embarrassed or isolated but rather indifferent to these apsects of my life. My life at home was very different from most kids I knew but because I was lucky enough to grow up in the melting pot of New York City I knew I wasn’t alone and that many of my peers also had various cultural backgrounds and rituals at their homes as well. I didn’t feel so different from other people regardless if our cultural background was the same, we could relate not to speaking the same language but just to being different.

The older I got the more grateful I was for being bilingual, my classmates and friends thought it was cool, egging me on to say things as they tried to mimic them. Most importantly though, I began to recognize it as a part of my identity rather than just a skill I had. I became proud of my heritage and proud of being two different people in one even with the confusion it sometimes came with. It’s helped me make connections with people both socially and professionally, making friends with coworkers and managers for speaking the same language and sharing anecdotes about growing up with Russian parents. I have never not benefited from being bilingual and definitly hope to pass it onto my children as both a useful skill and something to tie them to their heritage.