Two years ago, I wrote for Kveller about how I navigated the tricky prospect of teaching my child Hebrew in a house where I was the only Hebrew speaker. I’m happy to report, after a lot of effort and several visits to Israel, there are now two Hebrew speakers in my home. Unfortunately, teaching my now 4-year-old son Hebrew may have been the easy part.
Now I have to convince him to keep speaking Hebrew. Young children pick up languages easily, but as their language and ideas get more complex and they spend more time speaking the dominant language outside the home, their second language often lags behind. As my son grows older, it is becoming more obvious that speaking in Hebrew limits our conversations because we both lack the vocabulary to express our thoughts (I speak Hebrew fluently, but only at about a 5th grade level).
It’s very tempting when this happens to permanently switch to English for the sake of being understood, but I still believe the benefits of speaking a foreign language outweigh the costs. Here are some strategies we use for dealing with the challenges parents face in speaking to their children exclusively in a foreign language as their child grows older, especially when they are not entirely comfortable in that language themselves.
1. Use it or lose it
It’s clear that you have to speak a language to really learn and understand it, yet many parents seem reluctant to make their child speak in a specific language, and I don’t think this problem is unique to Hebrew speakers. As a developmental psychologist, it is no surprise to me that children growing up in the U.S. prefer to speak English with their parents when they know those parents understand English (even if their parents address them in a different language).
When my son does this, I simply have him tell me again in Hebrew before I respond. I suspect some parents hesitate to do this because they are worried that their child will feel like he or she was forced into speaking the second language, yet these same parents would not worry about their child feeling forced to brush their teeth or to wear shoes to school. By insisting that he speak to me in Hebrew, I not only ensure that my son practices and gains confidence in his Hebrew skills, but I also make it clear that speaking Hebrew is important and that I value his efforts to do so.
2. Keep it fresh
Speaking a second language does not have to be all or nothing, and it is OK to switch to the dominant language occasionally, but you cannot have the same conversations over and over (“Do you want yogurt or oatmeal for breakfast?”).
If your Hebrew is so-so (like mine), then you have to make an extra effort to introduce new vocabulary and phrases. We do this by reading books and watching movies in Hebrew. One thing that has helped a lot is Sifriyat Pijama B’America–the Hebrew PJ library. SP-BA sends us a high quality Hebrew children’s book absolutely free each month. (They also post excellent videos of a native speaker reading the book on YouTube.com.) My son is always excited when SP-BA books arrive and, although I confess that these books are sometimes challenging for me too, I don’t let my limited understanding stop me from reading them and looking up the words we don’t know together with him.
3. Find local support
Show your child that your family is not the only family who speaks Hebrew in your community. Find other parents who speak Hebrew, or who at least want to speak Hebrew. This may not be possible everywhere but it can be done even outside of the major Israeli enclaves in the United States. It may, however, take effort.
When I lived in Lansing, Michigan, I put up flyers looking for families who spoke Hebrew with their children. No one replied. I asked the rabbis of local synagogues if there were any Hebrew speaking families in their congregations. They said no. Finally, I volunteered to hold a foreign language storytime featuring Hebrew at the public library and that is where I met a mother who introduced me to the small community of Hebrew speakers in the area. It turned out there were exactly four other children in the area who spoke Hebrew at home, and they were all much older than my son, but we didn’t let that stop us: We started getting together on a regular basis (together with other families who had an interest in exposing their English-speaking kids to modern Hebrew) and it was wonderful.
I recently moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and I started this process all over, though this time SP-BA helped put me in touch with the small number of Hebrew-speaking families in my new city.
4. Interact virtually
In the worst case scenario, if there are no other Hebrew speakers where you live, have your child talk to Hebrew speaking family or friends over live video chat software such as Skype or FaceTime. Recent research has shown that young children are able to learn language via interactive video conversations as effectively as they do from being in the same room as the person they are talking to. Our family has also enjoyed using Storyly–a web-based service for reading Hebrew children’s books together on live video chat.
5. Make Hebrew the language of fun
For us, this means that the only time my son plays computer games is on the Israeli children’s TV website. He watches his favorite TV shows like “Dora the Explorer” and “The Cat in the Hat” in Hebrew as well. I’ve also capitalized on his love of solving mysteries by having Hebrew word scavenger hunts where the clues are the names of objects in our house (and the prize is a small treat like a sticker or a piece of candy). Consider proposing and agreeing to fun activities in Hebrew, and soon your child will want to speak Hebrew all the time.
These suggestions may not work for everyone, but hopefully they will make it a little easier for families not to give up on speaking Hebrew. Besides the obvious benefits of being able to communicate in a second language, speaking Hebrew has helped my son in many other ways. For example, he has gained confidence when he proudly translates Hebrew words for his preschool class. It is not always easy, yet I know that despite the costs, continuing to speak Hebrew is the right decision for both of us.