At Home in Two Worlds

Bilingual children may be more adaptable to different cultures and have a brighter job outlook, but parenting a child who speaks two languages is twice as difficult as raising one who is monolingual.

A huge black Labrador greets me in the doorway of a Moscow apartment. "Zdravstvuite! Are you afraid of dogs?" Mira, an 8-year-old girl with a mop of light brown hair asks me in Russian. But when speaking to her father, she switches to a language I don't understand. Mira is bilingual: She speaks Russian to her mother, Svetlana, and Dutch to her father, Erik. "The biggest challenge about raising a bilingual child is to make sure she doesn't mix the languages and remains fluent in both of them," said Erik Jansma. "We try to be very consistent about the languages we speak."

Psychologist Yekaterina Kashirskaya warns against mixing languages. "When a child is exposed to, say, three languages, and the parents speak this mix, the languages will take longer to learn," she said. "In some cases, a child may end up unable to speak any of them properly." In 2001, Kashirskaya set up Education in Development, a psychological and educational consulting center that helps expat families in Moscow find suitable educational programs for their children. "First come the needs of the family," Kashirskaya said. "Second, we look at each child individually. It's different when a child has been changing countries, or if the family has always lived in America but has now moved to Russia for work. Third, we look at what the market offers."

Although there are no hard-and-fast rules for raising a bilingual child, most parents opt for the idea that each parent should exclusively speak his or her native language to the child. "One parent -- one language, that's the only way to raise a bilingual child," said Svetlana Reiter, Mira's mother. Svetlana and Erik lived in the Netherlands for four years after Mira was born. As hard as it was, Svetlana made it a point to speak only Russian to her daughter. "Until we came to Moscow, she didn't even know that I speak Dutch because I never spoke it to her there," she said. "It may seem like a small thing, but if I stopped speaking Russian to her, I knew she would forget the language."

American Arlene Treutle taught English to bilingual children for eight years in New York. Now the Moscow-based mom of 1-year-old Alexander, she is benefiting from her teaching experience. "It's hard to be bilingual, but as I understood from my students, they grow accustomed to it," she said. Treutle and her husband, Lev, are raising their son in two languages. "I'm trying to make sure he gets the exposure to both languages. For example, there's always American radio playing. And, yes, he would say 'da' to his father, who's Russian, and 'mom' to me."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Mira Jansma speaks Russian to her mother and goes to Russian school while maintaining Dutch, her father's native tongue, through private lessons and visits to Holland.
Psychologists say that children who live in a foreign country or a multilingual environment will not learn different languages without encouragement from the family. "A child's well-being and language abilities depend on how well you build the educational program," Kashirskaya said. "It should not be a chat about nothing, not just 'hi, Daddy is home. '"

Kashirskaya cited the example of Israel, where a large number of Russian immigrant children are gradually losing their familiarity with the language. Their speaking skills are good, but many Russian Israelis cannot read or write in Russian because there is no one teaching them.

Kashirskaya recommends games or activities to motivate a bilingual child to speak in both languages. "It's great if there are grandparents to visit -- this is when the language will have a function," she said. "If there is no need to use a language, the child will never learn it."

Mira Jansma goes to a Russian school and her father teaches her Dutch himself, as there is no Dutch school in Moscow. "We've got some lesson material, and we try to do it on a daily basis," said Erik. "We also brought a lot of Dutch films with us from Holland. Mira chats with my parents over the webcam. It's not ideal, but she gets some exposure."

Arlene Treutle makes sure the input of the two languages is balanced for her son. "Alexander gets two bedtime stories. It depends on when his dad comes home, but it would normally be one story in Russian and one story in English," she said.

Since Russian education has a good reputation, some foreign parents living in Moscow have decided to send their children to Russian schools. "We've got a pretty good educational system; many people think the way math is taught here is much better than in the West, for example," said Kashirskaya. "But there are also psychological issues to consider -- such as if your children are prepared to accept issues like strict discipline."

Before choosing a school, parents should think about their long-term plans. "Our general recommendations are that a family take into consideration the length of their stay in Russia," Kashirskaya said. "If they have no Russian friends or relatives and they are going to leave soon, then maybe there is no need for the child to learn Russian. I would not advise teaching a child a language just for the sake of it."

But Muscovites argue that any planning ahead is impossible in this city. "If you decide to live in Russia, you sign a kind of contract with the devil that you agree to put up with an unstable life -- that's the rule in Moscow," said Svetlana Reiter, whose daughter is in the second grade. "We are not thinking university really. The third grade -- that would be good."

Obrazovaniye v Razvitii (Education in Development), 19/2 Malaya Gruzinskaya Ul., M. Barrikadnaya, 771-1122,