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My Kids Only Want to Speak Hebrew, But I Only Understand English

hebrew preschool

Ima, efo ha ekdach maim sheli?” Aviv asked, clearly stressed out that he was not properly outfitted for his yom maim, water day, at the daycare. I understood the, “Mom, where is my something water?” part of the question, but was at a loss for exactly what he was asking for.

Because I didn’t answer in the split second he gave me, his stress level raised and he began asking over and over again, getting more and more agitated. I found a ganenet, daycare teacher, and asked Aviv to repeat his question. She picked up a water gun as an answer. Makes sense, I thought. Water day, water gun. Got it.

This back and forth has become more and more regular. Aviv asks for something in Hebrew, I have no idea what he is saying, he gets annoyed, and I get even more annoyed. Aviv looks at me in disbelief. How could I not understand him? I am his mom. I am supposed to know everything. I look back at him in disbelief and in jealousy—how, after just three months of living in Israel, did his Hebrew go from basic to fluent? Aviv at 4-years-old and Maya at just 2-years-old have both surpassed any effort I am making to master this language.

READ: Hebrew School is Awesome, Really

Often, I try (calmly) to ask Aviv what the word is in English, but we are reaching a point where he no longer knows because we never used that word in English. Prime example: Water gun. Water gun was not part of our vernacular before Aviv became a 4-year-old Israeli kid who goes to gan (daycare) every day. How is this happening? How is he learning so quickly and simply? And where is his English?

Simply, he no longer wants to speak English. He came home from daycare last month and announced in Hebrew, “Mom, I don’t want to speak English like you. We speak Hebrew at the daycare. That’s how we do it, Mom.” I waited about three beats, just long enough to let my heart splinter for a short second, and then tried one of many strategies that I continue to employ to this day: English is a cool secret language that all of his friends wish they knew; Grandma and Zayde only speak English so if you want to talk to them you have to speak English; and last and least proudly, if you want something from me, you need to ask in English.

So now we are in a stage where I remind him that if he wants something he needs to ask for it in English, and this is what happens: “Mommy, [and the rest of the question is in Hebrew.]” I am succeeding one word at a time.

I can’t really begrudge either of my children their ease and success with the language. On a day when I have had enough coffee, I am super impressed and in awe of how easily they have both acclimated in terms of language and culture. In all honesty, I am not sure there is a choice. In the United States, Aviv and Maya could speak English at the daycare and the store and with my parents and Hebrew with their dad, our friends, and our neighbors.

READ: How to Keep Speaking Hebrew to Your Child

In Israel, I am their only English language outlet. There is not only no place for their English here, there is no pressure on them to use it (other than my failed attempts at bribery). Naturally, they want to be like their new friends and want their new teachers to understand them and like them. It all makes sense, but none of it decreases my worry about whether or not they will lose their English.

jewish child

I picked Maya up from the daycare last week and when I arrived all of the kids in her class started chanting, “Ima shel Maya, Ima shel Maya,” letting her know that her Ima was there. “Mommy!” she yelled, warming my heart as she jumped up and down. See, she speaks English, I thought to myself. This is all going to be fine. Then, she put each of her hands on the friends next to her, almost holding them back, and in fluent Hebrew said, “En lachem Ima cazoti!” None of you have a mom like mine, she told them, one hundred percent Israeli in language and attitude. If she is going to speak Hebrew, at least that is what she is saying.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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