Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bilingual Kids and Parenting

There's a nice little article in the Forward about a couple's attempt to raise their daughter bilingual in English and Hebrew.  Here's my experience with bilingualism:

Our kids are all bilingual.  I've always spoken to them in English.  We live in Israel, and my eldest only learned Hebrew when she was three and went to gan, that's nursery school.  I was sure that she had picked up some Hebrew by osmosis, just hearing some around.  But she didn't.  Her only lasting memories of that first year was a feeling of incomprehension.  By the end of the year, she actually was fluent in Hebrew as was her younger sister. 

They were completely bilingual when we went off on shlichut to London at ages two and four.  Then they lost it.  Their Hebrew that is.  My husband was supposed to speak to them in Hebrew, but he couldn't/didn't.  My Hebrew wasn't as good, and I never knew all the great little Hebrew songs one sings to little kids. I know them in English. 

Two years later, when we returned to Israel, neither girl remembered much Hebrew even though they had gone to a Jewish school which was supposed to teach them some Hebrew.  It didn't take them all that long to catch up.  In no time they seemed comfortable and fluent in both languages.  The younger children heard both Hebrew and English and were never at a disadvantage at school.

There were times when their spoken English seemed to disappear, but I spoke to someone who had been raised bilingual in the states.  His family used Hebrew at home, while the outside life was in English.  That's mirror image of what we were doing.  He told me that he had gone through a stage when he hardly spoke Hebrew, but then it came back, so I shouldn't worry. 

And that's what happened.  When my kids wanted their English to be good they found the words.

Over the years I've seen lots of articles that say that being raised with more than one language is good for the mind's development, and it makes it easier to learn additional languages.  I'm glad I've given my children the gift of English without having to learn it as a foreign language.


Hadassa said...

In addition to those reasons, please do not forget several very practical reasons to teach children your native language: assisting tourists, acquiring a job and in some cases acquiring the necessary education/training for a job.
One of my pet peeves is parents not teaching their children the only language that the children's grandparents understand. To me that is extremely disrespectful. Even if I spoke a "useless" language I would teach it to my children so that they could communicate with their grandparents.

Lady-Light said...

Batya, I raised 5 kids in Hebrew and English. This is how we did it: my husband, whose Ivrit was not fluent, spoke to them in English (they also were surrounded by English, as we lived in the States). I spoke to them in Hebrew, and here is the key: they didn't merely understand, but I insisted that they answer me in Hebrew as well-or they wouldn't get what they wanted (!). Many Israelis living in galut speak to their kids in Hebrew at home, but allow them to answer in English. This is detrimental to their fluency. My kids were so annoyed! But they sure were grateful when they made Aliyah years later...

Batya said...

Hadassa, a very good point. I speak English to my grandkids which gives them a very minimal comprehension, but it's a familiar language and the big one understands a lot.
LL where did you learn your Hebrew?

Marina Shemesh said...

We have a great English speakers program at school. Some days though it is a struggle for my children to express themselves in English - but I keep insisting : "Say it English!" Maybe one day they will thank me.

Batya said...

I never forced my kids to speak English, but now they all speak it well.