Marriage editor Gint Aras is preserving history and forging the future by raising a mutlicultural family. In Chicago, as in many European cities, this is the norm.
Long before my wife, Maria, and I had met each other, we both knew that if we had children, we’d raise them to speak and read multiple languages. This wasn’t anything to deliberate, simply the way things were. We both speak and read more than two: besides English, I grew up with Lithuanian and learned German. Her native tongue is Russian and she learned Ukrainian, Polish, German and English along the way. Our children would have more than one language.
We met and married in Linz, Austria during the mid-90s, and even our courtship was multilingual. We fell in love in German. When I met her family, I started trying to learn Russian. (I’m lazy about it, but I can have an error-filled, kitchen-level conversation with my in-laws, and I understand what my wife tells her mother over the phone.) Before moving to the States, we changed to English so my wife could polish up.
She got pregnant with our daughter, Kira, and we made a plan. I would speak Lithuanian to Kira and Maria would speak Russian; together, Maria and I would speak English. To prepare, Maria and I learned as much of the other language as we could during her pregnancy, and we practiced by talking to our cat.
There wasn’t much worry over the method. I was never concerned if my daughter would learn too much of one language and not enough of another, or if her English would suffer. I also didn’t worry if Kira would feel incapable of making friends. My parents raised me in Chicago in the 70’s without any English at all, and I barely knew a dozen English words when I stared kindergarten. Our neighborhood of immigrant children was this way, kids with Polish, Italian, Czech, Ukrainian, Croatian, Mexican or Lithuanian parents, and I remember quite a few multi-cultural households: a Mexican mom and a Polish dad in one family, for example. The vast majority of kids had no trouble with English, even when their parents spoke the language poorly—many neighborhood elders couldn’t communicate in English at all. But when kids lost a language, it was the one their parents spoke, not the one on the street.
What I did worry about was social disdain, a lack of understanding or support from parents and schools. The immigrant enclave of my childhood had long ago disappeared. American rhetoric during the Bush years painted a country quite closed-minded about culture. It was downright isolating to see Sarah Palin’s rise and to hear the lunacy of her supporters, people expressing hysterical pride in an American identity of cultural ignorance. It was easy to feel this stuff was all-pervasive. Nationally, our respect for language had fallen, evidenced by signs and advertisements devoid of apostrophes, “words” like thru and nite appearing regularly in formal print, and embarrassing bumper stickers: If you can read this, thank a teacher. If your[sic] reading it in English, thank a veteran. Radio hosts consistently shame themselves: “Watching the game, the ball was always in their hands.”
My concerns turned out to be misguided paranoia. Maria and I did not only find support from our neighbors and pre-school but also outright interest, even praise. At playgrounds, we became aware of just how many bi and multilingual families lived within walking distance of our home. I have heard parents speaking well over a dozen different languages in our neighborhood and throughout Chicago. My daughter is now four, and our son, Sasha, turned one in January. In that time, not a single person has ever asked me or my wife if we fear our kids won’t learn English properly. No one has ever told us that we’re ruining their chances for success.
When I speak Lithuanian to my kids on busses or in cafes, people regularly inquire about the language. They do it with sincere interest, enough that I feel perfectly comfortable asking parents what they’re speaking when I hear something I can’t quite place. I’ve heard languages like Urdu, Vietnamese, Portuguese and Romanian. Kira’s pre-school already practices Spanish immersion, and all of the educators there are quite aware of the benefits of language.
For the kids, there’s nothing to handle. The only obstacle at home is that I occasionally misunderstand instructions Maria gives them, and she might misunderstand mine, but that kind of frustration is worth it. Kira doesn’t know any alternative. Mom will tell her, in Russian, to ask dad if he can bring Sasha’s clothes up from the drier, and Kira will come and ask me in Lithuanian. The neighbor girl who’s over for a playdate will wonder, “What did you say?” and Kira will tell her in English.
Maria and I got much more than we imagined. We’re raising trilingual children, both of whom will learn Spanish in school, and we’re doing it in a supporting American community. I’m forced to wonder just how many corners of the States are this way now.
—photo by Sarah Ross/compfight