Finding a language I can call my own

Becoming bilingual helped shape my worldview

Anna refects on finding the balance between Russian and English.

Ever since my family immigrated to Canada, I’ve been trying to find the perfect balance between Russian, the language of my family, and English, the language of my new home. 

When I was young, I used to peruse the jokes section in the Chirp and Chickadee magazines. Each joke was like a riddle to me.  At the time, I didn’t know they were called puns. All I knew was English-speaking people them funny—and I was determined to figure out why.

"Why did the banana stay home from school? He wasn’t peeling well!"

Oh, I get it! Bananas have peels, and ‘peeling’ sounds like "feeling!" I would laugh every time I figured out the punchline, even if I didn’t find it funny. Understanding was a step closer to understanding this foreign culture.  

I remember when I tried to create my own joke, thinking about it all day in the school yard. Finally, I pulled my friend to the side for the experiment.

"What did the paper say to the scissors? Cut it out!"

When my friend laughed, I was elated. I’d cracked the code! I wasn’t an English newbie anymore—I was now a member of an elite club. 

These jokes are direct applications of how language conventions create meaning. Without having concrete grammar lessons in elementary school, puns taught me how English worked.

Meanwhile, the Russian language has a popular form of riddles called "ребусы," pronounced "rebusy." 

They usually involve three pictures side by side. The words describing the pictures can combine to form one longer word or a common phrase. Commas before or after a picture take a letter off the word, and other symbols may force you to completely rearrange the letters. 

Although often less humorous, these riddles allow to make connections and to think critically about word meaning. 

Thus, English puns focus on sound associations and context, while Russian ‘ребусы’ focus on spelling associations and hidden words within words. Each is a perfect representation of how differently the languages work. What’s fascinating to me is how, despite the contrast, they both can create the same meaning. 

***

Knowing languages is a privilege. 

As I continued to learn English, I developed a deep appreciation for its rules. It was almost an obsession to understand and correctly use conjunctions, the Oxford comma, and proper spelling. It still feels like I’m honoring those who’ve created the language by using appropriate grammar in my texts.

I’m proud of how far I’ve come, yet it’s difficult to ignore the roots of where I came from. On paper, I can write stellar essays, but I still have an accent. 

Although by now I feel like I was born speaking English, I’ll always be reminded it’s only one of the languages I speak, and that’s okay. It’s part of what makes me unique.

When I visited my grandparents in Russia five years ago, I experienced a stark culture shock. Sure, I knew the language, but I sometimes had a surprisingly hard time understanding those around me. Even peers my age told me my Russian was "old-fashioned," with most modern slang flying high over my head.  

Part of me was proud I was able to retain the ‘old-fashioned’ Russian vocabulary by indulging in classic literature. I felt like I was preserving a certain piece of the language that was slowly ebbing away. 

The other part of me was conflicted. I was losing the chance to participate in the language’s evolution.

Russian is always going to be a personal language for me—it’s the language of my family.

It’ll always remind me of home because it played a key part in many memories which I hold dear. For that reason, it’s hard for me sometimes to teach a Russian phrase to a stranger—it’s like I’m sharing something private. 

If English is a language of my accomplishments, Russian is a language of my intimate thoughts and feelings. I’m worried if I ever lose my proficiency in it, I’ll lose my connection to my sense of self. 

***

The prospect of learning a new language was never an obstacle—young me always thought of it as an exciting challenge. 

I started my journey by devouring books written in English and in Russian—and sometimes the same book in both languages. I wanted to see whether the idea remained the same, and more importantly, in which language I understood it better. 

As I went about my day between home and school, I felt like there was a physical switch turning on and off in my head. There were times when I would enter my house and change to thinking in Russian mid-sentence. 

I hadn't given this versatility much thought until later, when I realized the languages started blending within my thought process. With this change, I’ve felt the connection between my personal and public life become more fluid. 

No language is better than the other. Knowing more of them simply gives you more options to express yourself. 

I prefer to write in English, but I like to read out loud in Russian. I think Russian translations are generally better, but I’m more likely to have a verbal discussion about that in English. 

By this point, I don’t need that physical switch in my brain—I’ve found the balance makes me the most comfortable. 

My message won’t change whether it’s written in the Latin or the Cyrillic alphabets, but I can choose now who can understand it. I have more control over how my voice can be interpreted and perceived by society.

Even though the two languages and cultures are vastly different, I shouldn’t be putting a divide between two significant parts of who I am.  

I feel like I’ve become a chimera—not fully an expert in either language, but proficient in the tongue of my own I’ve developed when combining the two. I don’t fully understand the intricacies of English verb tenses, nor the proper use of Russian punctuation. 

But I don’t need to be an expert. Whatever I’m missing in one language I can easily fill in with the other. I have access to two vast and evolving cultures, each with its own morals, beliefs, and values. Combining the two within me gives me a richer understanding of the human condition and a unique voice to interact with it. 

This is the lens through which I view my world. I’m glad I’ve been able to accept it. 

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.