Why My Daughter Isn't Bilingual — Yet

Adventures in Raising a Child To Speak English and Hebrew

Benefits Abound: Kolben hopes her daughter, Mika, will learn to speak Hebrew (not Spanish) with some help from Dad.
deborah kolben
Benefits Abound: Kolben hopes her daughter, Mika, will learn to speak Hebrew (not Spanish) with some help from Dad.

By Deborah Kolben

Published April 17, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
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The problem was that everybody was extolling the benefits of bilingualism but nobody was laying out for us a plan for how to enforce it. Matt Gross, a travel writer for The New York Times who also blogs at Dadwagon.com, recently wrote about raising a bilingual child (his wife speaks Chinese).

After spending three weeks with his 3-year-old in Taipei, Taiwan, Gross was impressed with how well his daughter could communicate in Mandarin. So he decided to offer up a short tutorial on how to do what he’s done. It boils down to three main points: 1) The foreign-born parent must speak the foreign language to the kid as often as possible, even if the spouse doesn’t understand; 2) the parent must surround the kid with foreign language material, and 3) the kid should attend bilingual preschool.

But the thing is, even for those parents who do figure it out, there still remain some unintended consequences. My friend Sarah Tuttle-Singer moved with her two kids to Israel from Los Angeles. The kids now speak Hebrew fluently, but she complains that they will no longer speak a lick of English. They refuse to even call her “Mom,” insisting instead on “Ima.”

“I think the hardest part about raising a bilingual child who prefers the ‘other’ language is that it makes me feel like I’m losing an emotional connection to them,” Tuttle-Singer said. “Since so much is conveyed through language, when I feel like we aren’t able to communicate freely in my native language, it makes me feel a stunning disconnect.”

Even though it’s frustrating, I still want Mika to speak Hebrew, and not just because it may make her smarter. A good half of her family lives in Israel, and I want her to feel just as connected to them as she does to her aunts and uncles and cousins here. I think that speaking Hebrew will give her a firmer connection to Judaism, in whatever way she chooses to practice it.

My husband, Mika and I are traveling to Israel for two weeks in April. In preparation, my husband began speaking to Mika in Hebrew again. When he asked her if she wanted Safta (Grandma) in Israel to get her a matana (gift) that was gadola (big) or ktana (small), she appropriately chose the larger one. And when he asked what she was going to say to Saba (Grandpa) and Safta when they picked her up at the airport, she smiled and screamed, “Hola! ”

We still have our work cut out for us.

Deborah Kolben is the editor of Kveller.com. She has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, the New York Daily News and the New York Post.


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