Sunday, December 24, 2006

Profile: Liza R's son learning English and Hebrew in Israel

Liza Rosenberg from the US, a self-described “technical writer, blogger, freelancer and mommy,” blogs about her life in Israel at Something Something and at Brio, “Parenting in a Global World.” She and her husband are raising their son multilingually and muticulturally—with English as the home language and Hebrew as the outside majority language, plus some Farsi—and she graciously agreed to share some of her stories and observations. These passages are taken from two of her recent posts discussing her son’s language acquisition. Thanks, Liza!

“As we raise our son, [we’re] trying to instill in him knowledge of his family's past. Thanks to his parents, he is a Persian-American Israeli…. We are speaking to him only in English so that he will feel equally comfortable in both English and Hebrew, and our ‘work’ is paying off for us so far, as even though Hebrew has begun creeping into his growing vocabulary, English is his primary language.

“When our son was born….I came across the words of supposed experts, who claimed that it was essential that each parent speak to the child only in his or her respective language, and I assumed that this would be the route we'd be taking as well. My husband's English is quite good, and I liked the idea that we would both speak to our child in English, but felt that I would be asking a lot by requesting that my husband speak to our son in a language that was not naturally his own. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when he suggested that we both use English, believing that it would help to ensure that our son felt equally comfortable in both languages, that he would be totally bilingual. Occasionally, we are both guilty of lapsing into Hebrew when speaking to our son, but for the most part, we address him in English. We read to him primarily in English, teach him children's songs in English, and encourage him to choose videos and television shows in English. He loves Dora the Explorer, watching videos of the American version that switches between English and Spanish as well as the more relevant Israeli version, which switches between Hebrew and English and shows him that it is natural to speak in both languages.

“On the other end of the spectrum, however, we want him to know that he is also Persian, and to this end, we have taught him (so far) how to count to ten in Farsi (which he does in both English and Hebrew as well). We are slowly introducing a few other words in Farsi, as we feel that it's important for him to understand and be proud of his Iranian roots. He already loves rice, and I'm hoping that one of these days he will enjoy the only Persian dish I know how to make - Ghormeh Sabzi. We will pass on the stories told to us by my husband's parents and uncles about life in Iran when things were good, introduce him to Persian food (excellent, and highly recommended!), and hopefully do our best to make him familiar with the language.

“In the meantime, we'll concentrate on the counting. After only a week or so, he's already quite good. One of us will throw the first number at him – ‘yek.’ He responds with ‘doe’ (two). Somebody throws in ‘she’ (three), and we continue this way, alternating up to ten. Ten is ‘dah,’ which the little one always follows up with a rousing, cheerful, ‘haydad!’, which means ‘hurray!’ in Hebrew. And he can almost say ‘sabzi,’ even though he refuses to eat it, so we are making some progress….

“When he does decide to talk, we never know what language will come out of his mouth. Earlier on, his primary language was English. As he grows older, however, more and more Hebrew creeps into his daily chitchat. He understands perfectly when addressed in English, but will often respond in a baffling combination of the two languages, at times using English sentence structure and Hebrew words. Eventually, his language issues will sort themselves out, and it is fascinating to watch our son develop his language skills. For the time being, however, it can sometimes be rather challenging as we translate his speeches into whatever language happens to be required by his audience.

“This was often the case while my parents were visiting [from the US], and as a result, we now find ourselves actively working on the issue of bilingualism, trying to make him realize that he speaks and understands two distinct languages, and starting to teach him to distinguish between the two. We have introduced the concept of ‘English,’ and when he says something in Hebrew, we will often ask him what the word would be in ‘English.’ So far, it seems to be working. On the flip side, when we ask him in English to say something to someone else (‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and so on), if the other person is Israeli, he will carry out the request by translating and responding in Hebrew. Sometimes, when he says something in English and receives no response, he switches to Hebrew, so clearly, he seems to realize that there are two sets of words. If we play our cards right, we'll have one fabulously multi-cultural kid on our hands. Haydad!

“Of course, it's still early days yet, but so far, our ‘hard work’ seems to be paying off. He may be an Israeli little boy, but his immersion into the English language can only work to his benefit, allowing him to connect with friends and family across the ocean and enabling him to be a citizen of the world."


  1. Hi!
    Thanks so much for visting Brio!
    Liza is a great writer and has a lot to offer readers.
    You have a great site here! Keep it up!

  2. Hi Dipu--your site is fantastic too--I read it and I don't even have children! Thank you for checking out Baby Bilingual--I hope you'll drop by again and share some of what you've learned about children and language acquisition from your experiences and travels.

  3. Hi Dipu,

    Thanks for the compliments (despite the fact that I post on Brio far too infrequently - my bad)! I'm blushing. :-D

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for posting the profile. I've just linked to it from my blog.

  4. It's neat how your son will try a different language if he doesn't get a response in the first. Very clever. Thanks for sharing.