Forgetting My First Language: My Experience as a Bilingual Russian American

I remember the day my father told me he was changing our last name. I was eight years old. At the time I was upset because I had just learned how to write my full name in cursive. When I asked him why he wanted to shorten our last name, he said it was because it would be easier for everyone.

My parents immigrated to America in 1993. My mother was pregnant with me and my parents didn’t know much English. They made it to New York and a few short months later I was born at home during a snowstorm. (My father likes to tell the story on my birthday, reminding me that he literally brought me into this world when he delivered me.) They promptly went back to school (even though they were practicing doctors in Uzbekistan)—a requirement if they ever wanted to be able to practice medicine in the United States of America, the land of opportunity. My parents only spoke Russian at home so naturally it became my native tongue—technically my first language.

Russian was all I knew for the first few years of my life. I remember one instance at a grocery store: I wandered away from my mother and an older lady found me. She started talking at me and I promptly ran back to my mother and told her that someone was trying to say something to me. My mother apologized to the woman and explained (in heavily accented English) that I haven’t learned much English yet.

I didn’t start understanding what was going on outside of my family until I started school and even then I felt completely lost. At home, I could read and recite poems in Russian. At school, I felt out of place. Teachers were constantly disappointed in my reading and writing ability. My mom spent hours at home teaching me how to read and write in English. I remember feeling annoyed because while everyone else only had to learn to read and write once, I was doing it twice, in Russian and in English. Of course, I eventually picked it up (after private reading lessons in elementary school because I was so far behind the entire class). So you see when my father said that changing our last name would make things easier, I didn’t question it because I didn’t mind one thing being a little easier.

Thinking about it all now I can’t help but feel like while I was finally catching up in school, I was letting something else fall behind, my first language. I used to love sitting with my mother and grandmother, reading Russian poems and learning Russian songs. We would watch old Russian movies and concerts. I would even recite lines from my favorite scenes. But as time went on, I had more homework to do, more books to read, recommended film adaptations to watch, all in English. I fell in love with reading and buried my nose in dozens of books—books written in English. Less and less was I reciting Russian poetry and expanding my Russian vocabulary. Still I spoke Russian with my parents at home, I watched a Russian movie every now and again.

When I left home to go to college, that’s when I really started to slip. I was forgetting Russian words constantly while on the phone with my parents. I started to dread going home because it felt so different to talk to my parents. My parents consistently remarked on how my grammar and vocabulary was getting worse and worse. I felt like I was failing at representing my culture because I could barely communicate in my native tongue.

Recently I finished a certificate program in editing from the University of Chicago. I brushed up on my English grammar, editing, proofreading, and vocabulary. But when I called my mom to wish her a happy birthday and video chatted with my grandmothers to check in on their health, I stumbled over my Russian words, speaking in choppy half-Russian, half-English sentences. (My parents have long since labeled it “broken Russian” when explaining to family why I always insert English words into my Russian speech.) Most of the time people are always surprised to learn that I speak Russian. Since I have no accent and my English name—Lyn Pinkus—doesn’t sound Russian no one ever guesses I am a Russian American. But you see my Russian name—Lina Pinkhasova—is about as Russian as it gets. But my dad decided to change it…

In Uzbekistan I would have been born Lina Edwardovna Pinkhasova. Lina as the first name, Edwardovna to symbolize that I am of my father, Edward, and Pinkhasova as my last name. However, in America I was born into the name Lyn Pinkhasova. My parents thought Lyn because it is a nickname for Lina in Russian and they thought it would be easier for Americans to pronounce. When I was around eight years old my father changed our last name and I became Lyn Pinkus. (Unsurprising that everyone is shocked at my Russian heritage.) At age eighteen in an effort to drift closer to my culture, I socially changed my name to Leah after becoming bat mitzvah on my birthright trip to Israel. Since then I have gone by Leah Pinkus.

Lina to my family. Lyn throughout my childhood. Leah as an adult. Pinkhasova, Pinkus; Russian, American. So many names throughout my years and yet I don’t feel fully connected to any of them. Sometimes I wonder what it would have felt like to have only one name, to start out as and stay Lina Edwardovna Pinkhasova. To have a name that reflected my culture and heritage rather than an Americanized version for the sake of blending in.

To be honest, I doubt I would have lost my Russian tongue any less. But maybe, just maybe, I would feel a little more connected to my Russian heritage because I wouldn’t have to convince everyone around me that I am Russian. I wouldn’t have to say something in Russian in order to prove to others that I can, in fact, speak Russian. But who knows? Odds are, nothing would have changed except that fact that everyone would call me by one name since that day in New York when my mom went into labor and my dad delivered me because he couldn’t dig the car out.

Until next time,

Lina/Lyn/Leah Pinkus/Pinkhasova

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