Thursday, May 04, 2006

Haydad for Culture!

Language and culture are powerful tools that allow us to express who we are and where we come from. It’s important to remember one’s roots, no matter where we find ourselves in the world, for parents to pass traditions and languages down to their children. My father’s first language is Yiddish, and to this day, I am sorry that he didn’t think to pass it on to me. It is the language that he spoke with his parents (and the language that my grandfather would switch to in later years when he was telling a joke that he felt was inappropriate for us kids and my mother to hear), and it was the lingua franca of his youth. Yiddish is a language rich in culture and history, yet in years to come, the only ones who will speak it will be the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom continue to use it on a daily basis, preferring to preserve Hebrew as a language to be used only in prayer.

Despite knowing only a few words of Yiddish (and by a few, I mean that I can probably count them on one hand, two at the most), I am well aware of my family’s history. I’ve heard the stories of how my paternal grandfather ran away from the Russian army and how my grandmother rescued him from a firing squad. I know that they spent time in Argentina on their way to the United States. I know how poor my father was growing up (he always likes to say that he doesn’t have a middle name because his parents couldn’t afford to give him one), yet I know that he still had a mostly happy childhood. My mother, on the other hand, had a typical American childhood – growing up in Brooklyn (with both of her parents having been born in the US as well), going to summer camp with her sister and cousins, vacations, etc. Unlike my father’s family, my mother’s family did not have financial problems due to a number of reasons, a primary one being the familial connection to one of New York City’s preeminent department stores of the mid-20th century.

But I digress. Language and culture. Fast-forward to today, as we raise our son, trying to instill in him knowledge of his family’s past. Thanks to his parents, he is a Persian-American Israeli, and a first-generation sabra to boot. We are speaking to him only in English so that he will feel equally comfortable in both English and Hebrew, and our “work” is paying off for us so far, as even though Hebrew has begun creeping into his growing vocabulary, English is his primary language. On the other end of the spectrum, however, we want him to know that he is also Persian, and to this end, we have taught him (so far) how to count to ten in Farsi (which he does in both English and Hebrew as well). We are slowly introducing a few other words in Farsi as well, for even though his identity as a Jew, an American and an Israeli will most likely deny him the opportunity to ever enter the country where his father was born (yep, Jews born in Arab or some Muslim countries are being denied their right of return – let’s save this subject for another post, shall we?), we feel that it’s important for him to understand and be proud of his Iranian roots. He already loves rice, and I’m hoping that one of these days he will enjoy the only Persian dish I know how to make – Ghormeh Sabzi. We will pass on the stories told to us by Danny’s parents and uncles about life in Iran when things were good, introduce him to Persian food (excellent, and highly recommended!), and hopefully do our best to make him familiar with the language.

In the meantime, we’ll concentrate on the counting. After only a week or so, he’s already quite good. One of us will throw the first number at him – yek. He responds with “doe” (two). Somebody throws in “seh” (three), and we continue this way, alternating up to ten. Ten is “dah”, which the little one always follows up with a rousing, cheerful, “haydad!”, which means “hurray!” in Hebrew. And he can almost say “sabzi”, even though he refuses to eat it, so we are making some progress. If we play our cards right, we’ll have one fabulously multi-cultural kid on our hands. Haydad!


Yael K said...

Haydad indeed! He sounds so precious. Wow and I'm planning to go the other extreme and not speak to my future kids in english at all until they are at least 6 (I do plan to speak with them in German starting when they are two-ish).

hey, once I get my hebrew down wanna learn yiddish with me? I can understand yiddish but can't speak it. I definitely don't want it to become a language only of the orthodox!

Liza said...

What language do you plan to use with them, then? All of our Israeli friends think that giving our son English as a native language is one of the best gifts we can give him. Also, I think my parents would stop speaking to me if we spoke to the little one in Hebrew only, as they wouldn't be able to communicate with him! Make sure you think this through carefully. German is definitely a cool idea. The more languages the merrier, and the earlier the better. It might be tricky in the beginning, but in the end, you'll end up with a multilingual little gang, which is always useful.

nrg said...

Just wrote a very long comment and was disconnected from my server... all was lost. My main point was, start with all three languages from day 1, yael k. A child has no pre-conceived notion that there shouldn't be three words for every object, action, feeling or thought. It is the best time to learn and if parents have the ability to give the gift of multi-lingualism (is that a word?) to their children, they really should.

Yael K said...

I'm figuring they'll pick up the english from their savta because there is no way my dear ema'le is ever going to learn Hebrew (and I'm fully planning on dumping the kids on her regularly ---she'd hit me if I didn't! :) At home, though, I want their identification to be fully with hebrew and with their country. The German will be for when we go on summer holiday to Konstanz. But at home I want their identification to be fully Israeli.

lisoosh said...

Love love love Persian food.
My husband and I fully planned on teaching our kids Hebrew from day one and guess what - we sucked!
I teach them some words but found baby talk really difficult in anything but my mother tongue and my husband and I have always spoken English between ourselves so we completely failed at our first task.
Yael - kol hakavod, one of the few truly determined English speakers and I am sure your absorption will be all the easier and more complete for it. However, just to give you a heads up, even those English speakers I know in Israel who speak English at home have kids whose Hebrew is better and more "native" than their English. It is the great thing with a Hebrew school system, Israeli friends and peer pressure.

Liza said...

I'd have to agree with Lisoosh. My husband and I both speak only English to our son, as well as a lot of English between us. In daycare, the owner speaks to the kids in English, and her helper speaks to the kids in Hebrew. So, while English is his primary language so far and the one he probably understands better now, he is still absorbing quite a bit of Hebrew outside the home.

My son is an Israeli. He was born here and will most likely grow up here, and at some point, his primary language will be Hebrew, because it will be the language he'll use everywhere but at home (and maybe even at home as well) or when we're with people who don't speak Hebrew. I know anglos here who chose to speak to their children in Hebrew, and as a result, their English isn't so great.

Yael, Your children will definitely learn Hebrew - it will be their native language simply because they're growing up here. English is the language that is most natural for you, and it would be a shame not to pass that on to your kids.

RR said...

This was a great read as I'm very interested in kids learning different languages (once upon a time I was on a mailing list for parents of bilingual children).

My husband is Israeli- he speaks to the kids in Hebrew. I speak to them in English. They've all gone to Hebrew-speaking gans/schools. The older kid is totally fluent in both languages, and even speaks English with no trace of an Israeli accent. He sounds like he was born in the USA. The younger kids are pretty much fluent but still mix the languages at times (Mom, I want to letapes on the even, for example). But that's how the older kid was at their age so I'm not worried.

I know people here whose kids are trilingual (Spanish or French from one parent, English from the other parent, Hebrew from just living here)- how cool!

Yael, I definitely recommend speaking to your kids in English. You don't have to worry about speaking to them in Hebrew because they will pick it up like THAT in gan and just from being around other Hebrew speakers. Don't deny them the chance to possess fluent, mother-tongue level Englsh. Age 6 is almost too late for that, I think. Think of what an advantage they'll have here (school, the workplace) with such high-level English. But I do think it's very cool that you'll speak to them in German as well! That'll be another great advantage for them.

Sorry to go on so long! She, I looked up the recipe for your Persian rice dish and it sounds yummy! Oh, and I also heard Yiddish at home whenever the adults didn't want us to understand something (mostly between my grandmother and my parents).

lisoosh said...

RR - sounds like you did a great job.
One other observation - my husbands parents are Moroccan and speak Morrocan Arabic and French but always spoke to their kids in Hebrew. My husband and his siblings speak Hebrew (obviously) and understand Arabic but French was the "don't want the kids to understand" language and all of them curse their parents for not using it and teaching it to them because they view it as the most useful. If living in Israel I would definitely go with the English, just to useful to ignore.

(Here we are a typical mothers "clique" telling the other mothers how to bring up their kids, even ones they don't have. Oy Vay. When did I get so old?)

Mia said...

My parents spoke in two languages (Hebrew and Swissgerman) with me from day one. I had no problem at all picking it up. Then I spent a lot of time with my grandma who´s mother tongue is Italian and I had no problem adding a third language. I think it is for my parents that I had no problems to pick up further languages in School (English, French) and some others later in life (Swedish, Hungarian). In my case it was the greatest thing that could happen to me. But I know other kids that just stop talking once introduced to a second language. Or kids that will always mix the languages when talking. So I guess you have to see how your child is reacting and than to continue or not.

I think it is sad that I didn´t learn Yiddish from my grandma instead of Italian, as I really don´t want it to be a language of only orthodox people. I understand a lot of Yiddish as I speak German and Hebrew, but my talking is really really bad and that´s a pity.

Now, the question is what will I talk to my children. Honestly I have no clue. But it makes me extremly sad that Hebrew will probably not be the first or second language and it looks like they will have to learn that in Hebrew school.... BUT there is still time for that and we´ll cross the bridge when we get there :D

Liza said...

rr: You give me so much hope for my own son! I would love for him to achieve that state of fluency in English, including not having an accent (now, for some reason, it sounds like he has a Dutch accent when he says words in English - don't know how that happened!).

I also agree with all the points you made. As native English speakers (or native whatever speakers), giving our children a second (or third) language at mother tongue level is a gift that shouldn't be underestimated, and the earlier the languages are started, the better. I actually just read an article in the Haaretz Magazine about people in Manhattan who are hiring Mandarin-speaking nannies for their children so that they will grow up with fluent Mandarin. Interesting stuff, and it seems to be working!

lisoosh: You're not so old! Of course, I don't actually know how old you are, but I'm guessing that you're younger than me, which automatically disqualifies you from oldness. Of course, those of you who are older than me are not necessarily old either. I think I'll stop this line of writing for now, given that I can only dig myself in deeper by continuing...

Mia: Some very good points. I've got an American friend here who speaks to at least one of her children in Hebrew on the advice of specialists who determined that the child would have a hard time dealing with two languages.

Can I tell you how much I envy your multi-lingualism? I think this is something that happens frequently in Europe, but it is quite rare in the US, where most people cannot get by in any language other than English, and don't seem to bothered by that, which is a shame.

As far as what language to speak with your children, I don't envy you that decision. They will pick up the language of the country in which you are living with or without your help. I would go with the language that is both most comfortable for you, yet will also be of practical assistance to them in life, an advantage for them to have. Hebrew is a beautiful language, but not terribly practical unless you're living in Israel (or spying on Israel!). German, on the other hand would be much more useful, I should imagine. Tough choice.

I've got a friend here who was born in Poland, but her family moved to Germany when she was a teenager. Her husband is Israeli, and she speaks to her children in Hebrew, because she couldn't decide between Polish (the language her family speaks) and German (the language of the country in which her family lives).