What were your families'?
Did you have a plan for raising him multilingual? Or no clue at all?
In this interview, Elena shares how important it was for her to let go of unrealistic expectations and to be kind to herself and her children as they grow up learning her mother tongue, Russian.
She gives amazing advice based on what's working for her family (which is what you should do).
My name is Elena Mutonono, I am from Ukraine and my husband is from Zimbabwe. Right now we live in New Orleans (USA) and have two children who are 6 and 3 years old.
What’s your approach for raising them multilingual?
One thing I noticed from reading your blog is that every family decides what works for them. The same is true for us. I speak to my kids in my mother tongue -- Russian -- all the time. We’re also a part of the Russian Community here in New Orleans where my kids get to learn the language, traditions and mingle with other kids and grownups.
My husband speaks Shona, but unfortunately he didn’t keep up with it as the kids began speaking English for the most part. They still understand some, but don’t speak it.
Russian is the language I use to communicate with my kids. Now my son can read it, so I let him read something almost every night. As a reward for doing some Russian practice, he gets to watch his favorite Russian movies. In the evening I read for them in Russian and sometimes in English, but if they have questions we discuss them in Russian.
I speak Russian at our table as well. You can hear us going back-and-forth in 2 languages, but my husband never feels excluded. In fact, just by being exposed to me talking to kids all the time, he understands 75% of conversational Russian. He sometimes responds in Russian, which always gives kids a chance to laugh.
Once a week my older son goes to his Russian lessons and choir practice (it’s done by a Russian-speaking teacher as well). It’s a great opportunity for him to connect with other kids who are also practicing their minority language and developing literacy skills.
One of the keys to successfully raise multilingual kids is consistency. How does your family stay motivated and focused?
For me staying consistent has been easier than letting go of my high and unrealistic expectations. There’s this notion that was ingrained at some point: as long as you speak and read to your kids, they’re going to be bilingual. I discovered that it takes a lot more work than just speaking and reading.
It’s also been humbling to let go of my own expectations and those of my parents’ (who are monolingual and don’t understand why speaking Russian while living in the US can be hard). I’ve learned to be kind to myself and to my kids when they mix languages, adopt foreign word order when they speak, and ask me to repeat or translate what they didn’t understand.
I’ve learned that it’s more important for me to share the love of the language and to inspire them to speak even if they make mistakes than terrorize them for their lack of accuracy.
How are you introducing Russian literacy to your son?
My son didn’t start speaking until he was almost 3, but he began spelling and identifying letters at 2. That was an unusual development, and I wondered how to introduce the Russian alphabet to him (which is Cyrillic, not Latin).
So I connected with a group of Russian teachers enthusiasts (www.RussianStepByStep.Com) who were publishing books for Russian immigrants in the US and asked one of the authors to give me some tips. She said that I could either introduce Russian letters at an earlier age or wait until he starts reading in English.
I was curious how to go about introducing letters early as some, for instance “B,” have different sounds in Russian. Wouldn’t the child be confused? Her response was, “When you introduce the letter and he names it in English, you tell him, Yes, that’s in English, but in Russian this letter reads like this.”
It worked. He learned all the 33 letters of the Russian alphabet before he started speaking.
I love it when we’re in the car, his sister says something in English, and he translates it to me into Russian. I love when both kids act out Russian cartoon characters and speak Russian to each other as they play.
As a language nerd, I love that my 6-year-old son makes deep linguistic connections between languages. Right now he attends an immersion school where he studies French, and he always connects words and their meanings in Russian, French and English.
There are many of such proud moments. The main thing for me is that he stays curious and interested. I want to nurture and celebrate it. I never force him to do any Russian, and don’t overwhelm him, but I like it that language learning is now a part of his being.
What has been the biggest challenge so far? How do you try to overcome it?
The challenge for me is to keep him interested and motivated. I understand that it might be hard to keep speaking Russian when English is so much easier. I’m proud of him for making an effort every day.
I think taking a trip to a Russian-speaking country to visit relatives will help greatly.
Another challenge, as I mentioned earlier, is coming to grips with the fact that he’s not as accurate as a six-year-old living in Russia. He speaks like a little immigrant, but I don’t want him to feel deficient about it.
I’m concerned that when he goes to Ukraine, he might feel (given the unfortunate cultural nuance of shaming) at fault for not speaking well. I want to be there for him and tell him how well he’s done so far and that making an effort to speak, even as he makes mistakes, is an act of courage.
What are your favorite minority language resources at the moment?
We’ve been using all the books by Russian Step By Step, and I can also recommend Marianna Avery’s series called “Soroka.” Marianna is my son’s Russian teacher, and she’s passionate about helping Russian-speaking kids learn and develop their literacy skills.
What’s your advice for parents considering teaching their kids to read and write at home, especially with different alphabets?
Find support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to book authors (especially if these are self-published authors). They are usually approachable and happy to share advice.
Make small adjustments and don’t be hard on yourself. I see this happening in expat communities all the time: mothers wish they had started speaking sooner, they feel bad for not having done enough of this and that. Small steps are important.
If you haven’t been speaking to your child in a minority language, try to find a group or a couple of friends who do that. If you want to help your child with reading, introduce new letters as you play and spend time reading and looking for these letters as you read books before they go to bed.
Learn everywhere and don’t force it when a kid is tired or overwhelmed. If you haven’t done reading today, maybe ask him to “write” something for you (even if it doesn’t make sense). Sing a song, watch a cartoon, ask questions about the characters.
Whatever you do, be kind to yourself and to your child. You both are doing an incredible job!
Tell us about your work and the Opted Out movement.
I started Opted Out at the end of 2015 to connect with my first book readers -- language teachers who wanted to start teaching online. Then it turned into a bigger movement of people who wanted to build small and sustainable businesses online doing what they love best -- teaching languages.
As a coach and a language teacher myself, I inspire people to grow as individuals through mindful self-discovery, focused learning and reflection so they build authentic businesses, not cheap copycats.
I also believe in making white space in life and business so people can become more creative in their daily lives and channel their creativity to make the world a better place.
Elena Mutonono is a business coach for online language teachers and a writer. She loves books, meaningful conversations, jazzy instrumentals, good food and wine and time with friends. She enjoys spending time with her family, checking out New Orleans eateries (there are many) and taking trips to new places.
She’s on a mission to help online language teachers discover the freedom and creativity that their job can bring to them, their families and their clients.