For a while–just as Sarah wrote a few weeks ago–I was learning Hebrew from my eldest child, but that stopped. One day, two years ago, at the tender age of 4, he decided he wanted to speak English and that was that. How does a 4-year-old make that choice?
I married my Israeli wife 13 years ago after a few years of business dealings in Israel. We set up home in the UK immediately and my on/off attempts to pick up conversational Hebrew sputtered and stalled. After seven years, our first child came and with it the realization that we had a chance to give him the gift of two languages.
My wife’s English is school and self-taught. Landing in the UK, her English was passable. With hard work and immersion, she improved it no end. She’s the first to admit, however, she’s no native speaker. She was always going to speak to her children in Hebrew.
My Hebrew, even today, is so bad my eldest just shakes his head and tells me not to speak Hebrew to him.
I can barely say “Shalom” in a restaurant before I’m being handed “tafrit be-anglit“: a menu in English.
Despite owning a company with 15 staff, having seven years of University education, and a PhD, I’m functionally illiterate in Hebrew yet required to sign complex documents at the bank. Oh well, I hope they don’t say anything too important.
But back to the parenting.
When my first son was born in the UK, my Israeli in-laws came to stay. I remember visiting Brent Cross Shopping Centre: we left my mother-in-law with our son in a restaurant. Upon returning we noticed a few other mothers staring at her as she soothed our crying son saying, “Die, die, die.”
“Die,” of course, is Hebrew for “enough” or “stop.” Said tenderly, it’s the same as “shhhh.” It still sounds weird to me when I push my younger son too fast on the swing and he shouts, “Die, die,” at me.
Just before his second birthday we left the English world and moved to Israel. His first words had been a mix of Hebrew and English but almost immediately he landed in Israeli gan (kindergarten). And it was pretty clear his Hebrew was going to dominate.
My wife and I continued speaking English at home but after six months in gan, my son was speaking with well formed sentences in Hebrew. He’d largely overtaken his father.
But his spoken English receded. For sure he still understood everything. And, like all toddlers, completely ignored any commands he didn’t wish to comply with.
So why, aged 6 today, is he speaking only English to me?
The short answer is the patience of my mother. When my parents come to visit, my mother has an almost infinite ability to sit on the floor and play with my kids. And my eldest relished this. But, and this really stung, just as he’d gotten good at communicating in Hebrew, here was someone willing to lavish extraordinary attention on him and she couldn’t understand him.
It was after one such visit at around the age of 4 that he told me to switch the TV to English. There is one English only children’s TV channel on our cable system. The shows are a little old and quirky but they’re all in English. This was all he wanted for weeks. He ignored his previous favorite shows and concentrated only on the English.
I added “Cars” and other Pixar hits to the mix and within three months, he was starting to speak to me in English.
There is something joyous about sticking your child in front of the TV and actually seeing it help him.
Sarah spoke about not wanting to be the outsider, using Hebrew with her kids in public sometimes. I gave up on that. I just can’t do it and now, at 6, my son responds in English to my Hebrew every time by asking why I’m speaking Hebrew.
I can tell that his Hebrew grammar and vocabulary are stronger but I’m patient and careful to correct his English repeatedly. Every now and then he will ask his mother for a word in English before telling me something.
My younger son, born just after we arrived in Israel and now 3 1/2, is following a similar path: he’s already called me four times from his bed as I write this to tell me, “My tummy is hurting,” (his preferred bed time delaying tactic du jour).
And believe me, the English voices in “Cars” are so much better than the Hebrew ones.
I think my eldest is proud of his English speaking dad. And I’m so proud to give my little Jewish kids this double gift I never received. English will help them everywhere else in the world, but for our lucky generation of Jews, home is Hebrew.