Teaching Russian Language to Children of Russian Immigrants

In recent years many teachers of Russian often come across a new and ever-growing category of students—the children of Russian immigrants who were raised in different countries outside of Russia. The knowledge of Russian among these students can vary greatly. Maintenance of one’s parents’ mother tongue in the second generation of immigrants depends on many factors. According to our data, attitudes towards the Russian language and the age at the time of departure from the native county are among the most important ones. It should be taken into consideration that for descendants of immigrants, the Russian language serves primarily as a means of day-to-day communication in the family. Not only has this language inherited many speech peculiarities of parents and relatives, but it is also a target for the host society’s language interference.

According to the data collected during our research, which began in 1992, the Russian language of immigrants who live in the English-language environment in the United States has some clearly identifiable features.

The intonation and rhythmical structure of utterances are most vulnerable to the influence of English. We believe that instructors who teach Russian to children of immigrants should pay particular attention to the IC-1 and IC-3 intonational constructions (according to E. A. Bryzgunova), characteristics of emotional variations of IC-5, and types of emphasis of stressed syllables. It is important for children of immigrants to develop skills in Russian stress and the reduction of vowels. Cases of non-matching places of stress in English and Russian are particularly noteworthy (depozit and deposit, Vašington and Washington). Many features that are characteristic of the accent of Americans who study Russian (as described in detail in methodological literature) are also attributes of the pronunciation of children of immigrants.

Lexical peculiarities of immigrant speech are characterized primarily by borrowings from English that are not in use in Russia, such as bejsmint], apojntmint, vejtris(ka). Interlingual interference also leads to semantic extensions (for example, in immigrant speech štorm means not only ‘burja na more’ but any kind of storm (sand storm, snow storm and heavy rain). On the other hand, in immigrant speech one can find words not typical for modern Russian usage even though they are created with the help of Russian morphemes (e.g, krestoslovica ‘crossword’), as well as words with archaic or dialect marks (such as zala ‘living room’), and outdated or semantically marked words (such as kontora for any kind of office). Children of immigrants experience difficulty discussing their daily life in the United States in Russian. Classes that point out vocabulary of such topics as academe, cars and driving, finances, entertainment, and food should be of great value to them.

Grammatical and syntactic interference in Russian immigrants’ speech is evident in structures calqued from English (“Ja ne znaju, esli on priedet” instead of “Ja ne znaju, priedet li on,” “govorili na radio” instead of “po radio”). As a rule, children of immigrants are not familiar with the grammar system taught in Russian schools. Even those who speak rather fluently often do not have any idea about cases or conjugations, and sometimes this leads to misunderstanding between them and their teachers in Russia.

Above mentioned features and other peculiarities discussed in the report are just a small fraction of what needs to be taken into consideration while working with the descendants of immigrants who are a very special audience.