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EDITORIAL: My Relationship with Bilingualism

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Artwork by Michelle Dong, staff artist

Bilingualism. Something that many kids growing up with more than one culture can relate to. Recently, as I spoke with different family members on the usual video call or phone call, I was surprised to realize that I was not speaking English, but my mother tongue, Russian. This gave me a newfound appreciation for being bilingual, and utilizing that second language resting on the tip of my tongue. Often, I don’t appreciate the gift of my second language. I use it everyday at home and with family and friends, often taking it for granted. Here is a mini appreciation post for bilingualism, and the wonders it has to offer.

I can think in more than one language! My thoughts can range in either English or Russian, offering a wider range of awareness. Thoughts translate into how I make my decisions and, weirdly enough, what language I think in can affect how I execute different tasks. I can reason with both languages, using each equally to guide different decisions.

But, I can also mix up words in both languages. I catch myself accidentally starting a lecture in Russian to my American friends, and forgetting how to say certain words in English. There are certain words I can’t translate to English either, making the explanation extremely difficult. How do I translate “ну”(something like “so?”), or “тётя мотя”(made up name commonly used to refer to an imaginary person with sarcasm), or the famous “Бабайка”(a creature in folklore used to scare little kids)? Common phrases such as “ни пуха ни пера”, “я тебе покажу откуда рыба писает” and “когда рак на горе свистнет” take a while to translate properly. Each language has its own unique set of these untranslatable phrases, though inconvenient, display beauty in the gem of bilingualism. 

Being bilingual helps me understand the culture behind the language. Watching movies, listening to music, and reading literature in Russian all expand my learning, giving the key to another layer of connection to different customs and traditions of a country. Speaking Russian lets me have conversations with family on classic films such as “Бриллиантовая рука” (The Diamond Arm) or “Кавказская пленница” (Kidnapping, Caucasian Style), or comedies such as “Иван Васильевич меняет профессию” (Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future). Even watching famous musicians like Andrey Makarevich host their own cooking shows unlock some degree of culture, despite how funny or silly they may be.

If I’m out in public, I can do something as simple as saying hi to my neighbors in the morning after hearing them speak Russian, or getting help from strangers on trips who I can share a common ground with. Bilingualism has helped me become more comfortable with introductions and conversation, meeting new people that I can extend my language to.

However frustrating it can be at times, I still come back to the same appreciation, listing these same values that I write about now. There’s a joke about losing vocabulary in one language, expressed in the term of “byelingual”. It certainly holds some truth. I’ve embarrassed myself countless times in public trying to come up with the right English word for something. I’ve nearly messed up in Spanish class because I forgot the Spanish word for “but”, instead almost using the Hebrew word for “but”, the only non-English word for this conjunction I could immediately remember. Honestly though, I’ve learned to accept that these things happen. Little mistakes don’t change the ultimate benefit I receive from being bilingual; connection. Connection to my family, connection to culture, and connection to the world. 

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