As a mother of young children, I often check out Metro Parent magazine because of its great calendar of events for Southeast Michigan. A recent post about the importance of kids learning a foreign language caught my attention.
I have good reason to agree with the author. I grew up with a multilingual mother, relishing the ease with which she switched from one language to another, and at my height, I spoke English, French, and Hebrew fluently, and some (very) rudimentary Spanish. Language has been my gateway to great adventures in foreign lands, some I can tell my children about now, and some that will have to wait until they’re older!
The mental work of learning and recalling a foreign language pays rich dividends: It develops the brain, increases intelligence, and slows aging, as reported in this New York Times article and this recent Harvard study.
The neuroscientific benefits of bilingualism are fantastic reasons to learn a foreign language. But for me, there are other, more spiritual reasons to learn another tongue. In the case of Hebrew, it connects the modern-day believer to a tradition that dates back 5,000 years. Hebrew allows me to both read the Torah in its original form and to converse with my cousins abroad. It is the language in which I discipline my children, and in which I sing when praying as part of a community in my synagogue. It is the language of the siddur (prayer book) I picked up in a shul during a semester abroad in Paris, before I had met a soul, and allowed me to instantly feel at home. I want that feeling for my children, so that wherever they go in the world, they know they are never alone.
It is for these reasons that my children attend a Jewish day school, where they learn Hebrew in an immersive environment—a significant portion of the day is devoted to studies conducted in Hebrew. By the end of their eight, or 12, years in day school, they will be able to understand the beauty and traditions of their heritage and the thinking and debate behind thousands of years of codified law by going straight to Hebrew sources (with the help of a translation app nearby). They will be able travel to Israel on their own one day, order (and taste) an amazing Yemenite dish, and read the newspaper, no problem.
In this day and age, learning a second, or third, language makes us citizens of the world. No one wants to be the “ugly American” who expects everyone to speak English. We gain so much more from a foreign culture—and our own religious culture—when we can speak in a native tongue. Better yet, get to a point where you can argue with someone over politics in another language and you’ll know you’ve mastered it!