Being Bilingual in America

Allison Lvovich, Staff Writer

Being a first-generation American and speaking another language fluently in America is an experience in itself, with some positive experiences and some negative. However, the majority of my experiences with speaking Russian have been overwhelmingly positive, and I’m pleased to share some of my favorites.

1. The Classic “Can you say something in Russian?”

I’m sure this is a common theme among people who speak less common languages, but I personally love this question. It gives me a free golden ticket to say whatever I want and teach it to the other person, and they have no way of verifying that the word or phrase that I said it meant is actually what it meant. Technically, they do have a way of verifying after our conversation, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t have a laugh about what they said during our conversation. All jokes (maybe) aside, it makes me happy when people ask about my language, not because I like attention (also maybe not a joke), but more so because I love learning about other cultures. When I’m able to teach someone else about my culture, it makes me happy knowing I may have helped spark an interest in another culture.

During Friday tennis drills that I help teach with my dad, two very talented brothers started showing up. After hearing my dad and I speak Russian to each other, both brothers became particularly interested. They decided to take Russian classes with a private tutor, and months later, the boys can now comfortably converse with me with wonderful Russian accents and pronunciation. It warmed my heart knowing that my dad and I were a part of the reason they wanted to learn a new language.

2. Can’t think of English Word, so I say it in Russian

Although it may seem niche, this is most likely another common experience between people who speak more than one language. Since I generally speak English more often than I speak Russian, it’s safe to say my English vocabulary may be a little wider than my Russian. However, there have been multiple times where I can’t think of the correct word in English, but I knew what it was in Russian. This didn’t really help me because I was probably speaking to someone who only spoke English, but it fulfilled my own validation, which in my opinion, is an easy positive.

3. Experience Two Different Cultures

My parents immigrated from the Soviet Union (at the time) in November of 1991, about a month before the union fell. All they wanted was to get out of Russia, so their planning was very limited. Some of my family spread out to different parts of the country, such as San Francisco and New York City. The rest of my immediate family flew to Atlanta. They left with a collective $500 in their pockets and started from complete scratch. As a young child, their work ethic inspired me to become a part of the person I am today. In addition to this, the juxtaposition between Russian culture and American culture has been absolutely fascinating to me.

One main example is the food; the easiest way to describe Russian food to an American is “ambitious.” If you’ve ever even looked up Russian food on Google, you probably weren’t terribly intrigued just based on their appearances. You have the classics, such as borscht, or beetroot soup, pelmeni, or chicken dumplings, and ikra, which in my opinion, might be one of the most visually unappealing foods. Essentially, it’s an eggplant and caviar spread that normally goes with bread. I’m personally not a fan, but it’s a delicacy for the rest of my family. Similarly, the Russian point of view on classic American food is beyond hilarious. With the surplus of burgers, hot dogs, and really anything fried, many Russians see American food as far too processed, yet now there are somehow hundreds of McDonald’s restaurants across Russia.

4. Eavesdropping On People in Lines

Once again, this seems like another apparently niche experience, but I hope I’m not alone when I say this type of experience is satisfying, in a way. I can recall at least three distinct times where I’ve been standing in a TJ Maxx checkout line, and I hear people speaking Russian somewhere down the line. My hearing isn’t anywhere perfect, but for whatever reason, it’s entertaining to listen to any gossip of people I don’t know. You can also relate it to the cliché movie scene, where someone is talking bad about you right in front of you in another language, but they don’t know that you can understand that language. Then, you proceed to confront them and they are stunned with the overly-used shocked look on their face. How climactic!

5. A Freebie on my College Applications and Resume

Despite America being a “melting pot” or “mosaic”, our lack of diversity in terms of languages is a pity for other countries. According to the 2010 Census, approximately 19.7% of Americans speak more than one language at home (at least bilingual). In contrast, about 54% of Europeans speak more than one language fluently. It’s interesting to compare the two, implying that it’s a lot more impressive to speak another language in America, but over half the people in Europe speak another language. If I came up to a random European and told them I spoke Russian, they probably would also tell me that they speak Russian (maybe).

This also makes us bilinguals stand out on college applications and resumes, and I consider it as something I can always fall back on if I can’t find a topic to write about on a college essay, or really any regarding my personal experiences and my identity. Since less than one fifth of Americans speak more than one language, bilingual applicants stand out and I’m under the impression that it may help you earn acceptances to universities. Not only does this help you for college acceptances, but it also increases your chances of being hired for a job or considered for a raise. According to Schwartz Insurance group, studies have shown that bilingual employees can earn between 5% and 20% more money per hour than those who speak only one language. Flight attendants, for example, are paid more on average if they can speak more than one language. This simply goes to show that communication is an extremely valuable asset, and is highly esteemed in the American job field, and generally, the American culture.