Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Father Tongue

As any self aware parent will tell you, parenting is hard work. More often than not we fail to stand up to our own ideals of parenthood; in my own personal case the most obvious evidence for that is our failure in the toilet training department. There are, however, other worthwhile failures in my parenting portfolio, and language is one of them.
Originally, my intention was to teach my son Hebrew to a limited extent. That is, help him speak Hebrew at a level that would pass for normal day to day chats but certainly no reading or writing. The main reason for this intention was to do with horizon broadening, and the timing was good because learning languages is never easier than when you’re a toddler with a brain that’s virtually a dedicated language learning tool (an ability we lose as we grow old). Knowing a second language is nice and it could even be helpful; in my personal case, the fact I have English as my second language certainly did prove helpful. Interestingly enough, I heard from a few sources that teaching a toddler more than two languages could confuse the child rather than produce an Einstein.
Hebrew in particular was chosen as our son’s second language for two main reasons: first, it would allow for dialog with the Israeli part of the family, much of which is not fluent in English. Second, I just happen to have someone who speaks Hebrew pretty well in my household, which makes teaching the language easy. Yet, as already implied, circumstances have proved to be quite far from easy.
For a start, our toddler’s world is made of a whole lot of English speakers and only one Hebrew speaker. Since his time with me is limited, there is just that much Hebrew exposure that he can have. Worse, most of the time in which he’s with me we also happen to be with others who do not speak Hebrew, making it a bit awkward to use Hebrew when I talk to my son and use English otherwise. Especially when many of the statements I make to my son are meant to be heard and understood by our companions…
As our child grows and starts using language more complicated than baby talk he’s also starting to ask questions that are quite complicated to answer. For example, with his love of understanding how things work he asked me how car engines work and in particular what pistons do. Now, I could be the typical parent and give him a shallow answer like “they move the car”, but I prefer to give a proper answer (i.e., mixing gasoline and air and burning them to create an explosion that pushes the car) but in a way that someone totally ignorant of this world could have a chance of understanding. He may not immediately understand it all – I don’t understand it all either – but as we go along discussing the same things again and again he well learn; it’s a journey thing. My problem there is a problem of limited vocabulary: because my son’s Hebrew vocabulary is significantly smaller than his English one, a direct result of his limited Hebrew exposure, it gets very hard for me to explain things to him in Hebrew and expect him to understand them. In the conflict between giving my son a good answer and giving him an answer in Hebrew that he will understand the former seems to be winning on a regular basis. I am happy with my choice between these two options, but I feel it is important to make a conscious choice and to acknowledge it.
I find my last complication with teaching my son Hebrew to be the most interesting one, as it is related to me. The problem is simple, even if initially it sounds a bit ludicrous: with me living in a world where I constantly speak English and where all the written material around me is in English, a world where the only exception is phone calls I receive from my parents, my Hebrew is simply dying. It’s funny because there’s always this impression that your mother’s tongue is there to stay with you throughout life, but my experience shows it’s anything but. I used to have a problem with English speaking where I would hesitate to speak a sentence out because I was missing a word or two (that problem still exists, to one extent or another); now I find myself encountering this problem virtually any time I need to form Hebrew sentences up. Even at its shallowest use, as in when talking to family members over the phone, I still find myself inserting words in English here and there without even realizing I’m doing it. Or when answering a straight question put to me in Hebrew, I find myself using English words with people who don't understand a word of English. My English is not the same as the English of native speakers, but English had become my de facto dominant language; it now takes special effort for me to speak Hebrew, a scenario that used to be reserved for English - my second language. When Hebrew requires me to make an effort, and between me being generally lazy and the mighty efforts required to keep my son alive in the first place, it’s no wonder I’m losing the battle to teach him Hebrew.
Not that I care much about their opinion, but my Israeli relatives are in for a disappointment if they expect to be able to form proper dialog with my son the next time he visits Israel. I suggest they take up some English lessons.

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