Monday, November 20, 2006

Crossing the language barrier

As you all know, we have recently been entertaining the American grandparents, who came to Israel for a brief visit with the progeny. I think one of the hardest aspects of raising a child in a distant culture is that my son is missing out on getting to know the American side of his family. At age two-and-a-half, he has had five extended visits with his grandparents – three here in Israel and two in the United States. We have pictures of them around the house, and talk to them on the telephone every week. We look at the photos of family and friends from far away and practice their names – I want him to understand that even though we don't see these people everyday, they are still an important part of our lives.

It's not easy explaining to a two-year old why he can't see his grandparents more frequently, especially given the fact that we live in a society where extended family plays such a significant role in day-to-day life. Here in Israel, it is not uncommon for families to live relatively close to one another, or for grandparents to pop in for an afternoon visit or to babysit. Over the fifteen years that I've been living here, I've grown accustomed to seeing friends and family abroad only once or twice a year (if that much), and to missing out on special or sad events. It hasn't been easy, but it's something I've learned to live with. The old wounds were opened anew with the birth of our son, however, knowing that I was depriving his grandparents of the chance to watch him grow, wishing they could be there more often, instead of having to rely on photos and scattered moments on the telephone, when he randomly decides whether or not he feels like talking.

When he does decide to talk, we never know what language will come out of his mouth. Earlier on, his primary language was English. As he grows older, however, more and more Hebrew creeps into his daily chitchat. He understands perfectly when addressed in English, but will often respond in a baffling combination of the two languages, at times using English sentence structure and Hebrew words. Eventually, his language issues will sort themselves out, and it is fascinating to watch our son develop his language skills. For the time being, however, it can sometimes be rather challenging as we translate his speeches into whatever language happens to be required by his audience. This was often the case while my parents were visiting, and as a result, we now find ourselves actively working on the issue of bilingualism, trying to make him realize that he speaks and understands two distinct languages, and starting to teach him the to distinguish between the two. We have introduced the concept of "English", and when he says something in Hebrew, we will often ask him what the word would be in "English". So far, it seems to be working. On the flip side, when we ask him in English to say something to someone else ("please", "thank you", and so on), if the other person is Israeli, he will carry out the request by translating and responding in Hebrew. Sometimes, when he says something in English and receives no response, he switches to Hebrew, so clearly, he seems to realize that there are two sets of words.

When our son was born, I started an internet forum for bilingual families in Israel. I was concerned about the language issues, and wanted to hear how other parents had approached the hurdles we were facing. I queried people in the forum, I queried friends who were in similar situations. I came across the words of supposed experts, who claimed that it was essential that each parent speak to the child only in his or her respective language, and I assumed that this would be the route we'd be taking as well. My husband's English is quite good, and I liked the idea that we would both speak to our child in English, but felt that I would be asking a lot by requesting that my husband speak to our son in a language that was not naturally his own. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when he suggested that we both use English, believing that it would help to ensure that our son felt equally comfortable in both languages, that he would be totally bilingual. Occasionally, we are both guilty of lapsing into Hebrew when speaking to our son, but for the most part, we address him in English. We read to him primarily in English, teach him children's songs in English, and encourage him to choose videos and television shows in English. He loves "Dora the Explorer", watching videos of the American version that switches between English and Spanish as well as the more relevant Israeli version, which switches between Hebrew and English and shows him that it is natural to speak in both languages. Of course, it's still early days yet, but so far, our "hard work" seems to be paying off. He may be an Israeli little boy, but his immersion into the English language can only work to his benefit, allowing him to connect with friends and family across the ocean and enabling him to be a citizen of the world.

*This post cross-posted to Brio.


lisoosh said...

You've done a better job than I have, my eldest knows maybe 10 words of Hebrew.

James said...

What a beautiful story of languages and people---how it effects lives. What a great insight. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I have so many friends who have pondered this same issue (usually Spanish/English) - and inevitably, the outcome is that the child will be literally fluent in two languages, and have two mother tongues, which will serve him well. Your active involvement in that will make things even better for him. Good luck and best wishes,

Liza said...

lisoosh: It's easier for me - I'm the one using my native language. If we were raising our son in the US, we'd be doing it in Hebrew, and I wonder how consistent I'd be.

james: Thanks! What language are you speaking to your new "little one"? ;-)

d.k.: Thanks! That's what we're hoping. This topic is a constant source of interest/concern for all multicultural couples, I should imagine. I even know of families here that use three languages at home!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to the Brio article as well. I'm working up the courage to send in out some articles - versions of what I may have written on my blog, and it really is neat to see how you tweak your writing per audience, without losing substance.

Anonymous said...

I shudder to think what any child of mine born here would grow up saying. "Feck off, Mammy" might be high on the list!

nrg said...

I have found that I am less consistent with my second child. Little Viking girl is fluent in both, but I found yesterday that little Viking boy couldn't remember the words for eyes and ears and mouth and nose.... scared me. I haven't spoken a word of norwegian to him since. We've got to get that kid to the US again soon!!

Anonymous said...

We've been solid on our desire to continue speaking English in the home as well. We've had a few people tell us we need to speak more to the boys in hebrew at home, but we disagree. They get enough of hebrew all day in gan and it's interesting, they don't want me to even translate or ask questions here and there in Hebrew.

The hebrew is coming along slowly but surely, it's fun, isn't it, watching them grow, discover, and tell you about it! :)

Liza said...

Jessica Brogan: Do it! Your writing is excellent, and so are the photos that you post.

Beth: And won't that just charm the pants off of all of his grandparents! I work hard to keep a lid on the swearing in his presence, but it doesn't always work. Of course, those are the times when he chooses to immitate me...

nrg: And how was he when your parents were visiting? Sometimes I find myself slipping into Hebrew with the Little One, but then I immediately switch back to English. Doing whatever I can to maximize the English that he soaks up. Lately, we've noticed that even though he might be speaking in Hebrew, he has a tendency to use English sentence structure, which makes life interesting.

emah s: Good for you! The boys will definitely learn Hebrew outside the home, so your "job" now is the ensure that they maintain their English by speaking it consistently in the home. Who's told you that you should be speaking Hebrew to them in the home? That's just ridiculous!

Idan said...

I grew up bilingual (parents speaking hebrew to me in the US). I have enough anecdotes to bore you for a lifetime. :)

The one thing that I'm very sure of, having seen myself and friends (often from the same bilingual situation as me) is that children do not acquire mother-tongue language without hard work. If you do not make a hard-and-fast rule about speaking the "non-local" language exclusively at home (except when it would be impolite, e.g. guests), then children will eventually lapse into the language they use to speak with their friends at school, which in your case would be hebrew. I used to come home and answer my mom's hebrew questions in english, and she would insist (in the way that only moms can) that I speak hebrew with her.

Every single friend I have went through this pattern. Those that had parents who firmly insisted on hebrew in the home speak hebrew like Israelis. Those who don't speak hebrew like americans, or not at all. None of them have any problems with their english as a result of speaking hebrew in the home -- my friends have a standard distribution of english ability from capable to eloquent.

Just FYI. :)

Shari said...

I agree with Idan, from the parent's perspective. My kids are 19 and 15 now; we moved here to Israel ten
years ago from the U.S., and spoke
only English at home.
We were heavily pressured by the school to speak Hebrew to them since they had to learn it from scratch. We were told they would suffer and wouldn't ever learn Hebrew the way they should if we didn't speak Hebrew at home, etc etc. I'm happy to say that both kids are fully bilingual with native accents in both languages, and do well in school, even in "Lashon". Keep it up!