Last night, I went to a talk given by a speech pathologist on the topic of bilingualism.
This was the second such talk I’ve attended since the Crunch family made aliyah in 2006. The first talk I heard was in Modi’in, given by a speech pathologist who specializes in bilingualism. In the first talk, given by Margaret from Ra’anana (in Israel for over 20 years), the Cap’n and I learned that parents with mother-tongue English should speak only English to their children. They should read books, watch videos, play games and do Internet research on subjects of interest, all in English. They should spend several hours each afternoon actively expanding their children’s vocabulary, and using the most sophisticated diction and grammar to ensure that the children grow up with mother-tongue English as well. By no means should Hebrew words be sprinkled throughout their English speech; for every Hebrew word, Margaret contended, there is an English equivalent which should be used. Hasa’ah should be “bus,” petek should be “note,” and chug should be “class.” The children will learn Hebrew in school, and for children having trouble learning Hebrew, Israeli children or teens can be invited (or paid to come) to the house to play in Hebrew. Bottom line: English speakers should speak English, and Hebrew speakers should speak Hebrew.
Last night’s talk was given by Esther, whose family came to Israel 17 years ago. She had a much more integrative approach. She pointed out that the message sent by a family with only English books, newspapers, videos, and conversation in the house is that the members of that household are not part of the greater Hebrew-speaking society. When Jews emigrated to America from Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Rumania, what they all had in common that unified them was Yiddish. What unifies us as Jews and Israelis here in Israel is Hebrew. Therefore, according to Esther, the main priority here in Israel is to make sure the children learn Hebrew. She made a distinction between the official definition of bilingualism (i.e. equal proficiency in two languages) and functional bilingualism, which is the ability to function (i.e. read a newspaper, textbook, technical manual, or books for pleasure, do Internet research, and converse) in two languages. To encourage this, Esther urged parents to read to their children in Hebrew (starting with the kinds of books to be found in preschool and kindergarten libraries), to discuss the books in Hebrew (if possible), and watch videos (including dubbed American films) in Hebrew. She believes there is no harm in sprinkling one’s English vocabulary with common Hebrew words (like gan for “kindergarten,” tiyul for “field trip,” and aruchah for “snack” or “lunch”). She discouraged parents from trying to make their children speak one language or another in the home, saying that communication free from power struggle is the most important thing to establish between parents and children, and if the parent speaks English to a child and the child answers back in Hebrew, that should be acceptable. For kids who are speaking English with thick Hebrew accents (it happens even in homes where mother-tongue parents are teaching their children Hebrew), a parent can get on the extension when the kid talks to his grandparents in Boca and translate the Hebrew words or conversation. Here was an example she gave:
Kid: Shalom, Savta. Asinu tiyul maksim hayom.
Parent: Hi, Grandma. We went on a great field trip today.
Kid: Nasanu b’otobus lagan hachayot.
Parent: We went on a bus to the zoo.
Kid: U’kshe chazarnu, haya m’od amus b’machsom.
Parent: We stopped at a Dairy Queen on the way home. (Real translation: When we came back, it was really crowded at the checkpoint.)
Kid: Shamanu b’radio shehaya pigua.
Parent: Everyone had a great time. (Real translation: We heard on the radio there had been a terror attack.) Okay, honey, it’s time to get off the phone and let Mommy talk for a while.
There was plenty of food for thought last night, not least because Esther and Margaret have such different approaches. How do the Cap’n and I manage? We hover somewhere between Margaret’s strict and Esther’s more easy-going approaches. We tend to use some Hebrew words in our speech, but I at least try to alternate between using the Hebrew and giving English equivalents. We model sophisticated language and grammar, and the Crunch girls, God love them, are receptive to correction. We have a growing Hebrew library (picture books, poetry, Harry Potter) and the kids alternate between watching programs in Hebrew and English, seemingly equally comfortable with both.
Who out there deals with bilingualism, and how do you handle it?