How my Mother Lured Me into Multilingualism

Does monolingualism constrain the way we see the world?

Posted Apr 02, 2019

Aneta Pavlenko has been my coblogger for close to five years. She has written wonderful posts in her areas of specialty and has greatly diversified our offerings. Aneta has decided to leave our blog, much to my regret, but her posts will remain as part of the resource we offer readers (for an index by content, see here). For her last post, she has kindly accepted to write about how she started her life in languages back in Kiev when the Soviet Union still existed and Ukraine was part of it. Thank you, Aneta, for these good times together and for having been such a marvelous partner!

For as long as I remember, my life has been multilingual, even if I didn’t think of it that way. Born in Kiev, capital of Soviet Ukraine, I grew up hearing three tongues. Russian was the language of daily life. Ukrainian was used alongside it in the media and in education. Parents had a choice between Ukrainian schools that taught Russian as a second language, and Russian ones that did the same with Ukrainian. The third language I was in contact with, Yiddish, had been outlawed in schools and was dying out. My grandparents used it as a secret code. My mom understood some and I got the gist from individual words: naches [pride, joy] and sheyne punim [pretty face] meant they were talking about their beloved granddaughter, and tuches [derrière] and meshuggeneh [crazy] referred to downstairs neighbors.

As it happens, I also got an earful of English as a kid, because my mother Bella – a teacher of English in an evening school for adults with interest in foreign tongues – used to bring me with her to work. An ardent believer that foreign languages were the key to the world beyond the Iron Curtain, she hoped I would soak the language in, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. The lifeless boy and girl and their dull possessions, ball, pen and book, made me yawn, and as a seven-year-old, I was already resistant to useless knowledge. Bella, however, had more tricks up her sleeve.

Figuring that a Slavic language made for an easier start, she asked a colleague from her evening school to come to our home once a week to teach me Polish. Soon, I was hooked. There was no one I could speak Polish to besides my teacher but that wasn’t the point. Polish was the language of cult pop songs and of glossy women’s magazines sold ‘under the counter’ in our newspaper kiosks, whose gossip and glamor were a welcome respite from the drabness of their Soviet counterparts, Rabotnitsa [Female factory worker] and Krestianka [Female peasant]. Most importantly, I could read Polish books from Druzhba [Friendship], a magnificent bookstore at the heart of Kiev that specialized in titles from the socialist block, including translations of works unavailable in Russian. The first time I read Godfather and Gone with the wind was in Polish.

By fifth grade I was ready to give English another try. On the first day, our English teacher welcomed us with a passionate speech: “My dear fifth graders, today is a very important day in your life – you are starting to study English. Your knowledge will prove crucial when we are at war with imperialist Britain and the United States and you will have to decode and translate intercepted messages.” This was a novel idea, since Bella had conveniently forgotten to inform me that one day we would have to confront capitalist powers and interview their spies. The mission didn’t appeal to me one bit, and English was put once again on the back burner as I transferred to French. The move didn’t free me completely from ideological onslaught – our classes still revolved around Lenin’s activities in Geneva – but now I could sing along with Mireille Mathieu and Joe Dassin.

And then the unthinkable happened. One day I picked up an Agatha Christie novel my mother was reading with her students and realized I had soaked in enough English to be intrigued. I don’t know if she left the book on my desk on purpose, feeling smug to see me plow through it, nor did I care – I was too busy trying to figure out who had killed Roger Ackroyd. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that she was right: One could learn from osmosis. Ever since I have hidden a sordid secret – I have never had any formal instruction in English. My only teachers were the Grand Dame of Mystery and my own mother, whom I apparently failed to ignore, while doodling at the back of her class.

By high school, I was avidly reading whatever Polish, French, and English novels I could get my hands on, listened, clandestinely, to broadcasts from abroad and was always on the lookout for left-leaning foreign dailies that squeaked by Soviet censors, like the English Morning Star and the French L’Humanité. The latter taught me the difference between us and the French: no self-respecting Soviet newspaper would feature cartoon adventures of a puppy named Pif.

Today, I live in a world vastly different from the tightly controlled universe of my youth, a world where the 24-7 news cycle connects us to the rapidly shrinking – and increasingly fragmented – universe, where everyone has a sense of unlimited access through their favorite news “provider”. Yet as I start my day with sites in several tongues, I find that many events in Russia, Ukraine and Poland never find their way to English-language news, while others acquire new facets through the lens of Le Monde or El País. These differences, familiar to every bilingual, make me wonder: Was my mother right? Does monolingualism constrain the way we see the world? Is our sense of unlimited access only an illusion, fed by “providers” that preselected and translated second-hand news from the around the world?

And if so, why do some foreign language programs still insist on teaching students how to order rooms and meals from people who speak perfectly serviceable English? Wouldn’t it be more productive to get students in the habit of reading, comparing and contrasting the coverage of ‘the same’ events on different sites and in different languages? My mother certainly thought so. In a world bent on information control, she opened a window her daughter could look through, even if all I did, for the longest time, was to stare at Scarlett O’Hara, Roger Ackroyd, and Pif!

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.