Thursday, January 11, 2007

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

Remember Liza Rosenberg, whose son is growing up in Israel with English and Hebrew and even a little Farsi and Spanish? I quoted extensively from her blog, Something Something, last month (click here to read more about her son's progress and here to read about her anxiety about his learning English in school). As a follow-up to that post, she answered the Bringing up Baby Bilingual questionnaire. Here are her answers to my burning questions!

What is your language background and history? I grew up in the US, speaking English and learning Hebrew and Spanish (as well as one relatively wasted year of Latin to help with the SATs!) in school.

What languages are you exposing your son to, and how? My husband (who moved to Israel at age 3 from Iran) and I speak to our son mainly in English, but are teaching him words in Spanish and Farsi, in addition to the Hebrew he picks up in daily life.

Why do you want your son to learn a second language? The English is very important, not only because it will be his sole language of communication with our family and friends in the US, but also because it will open the door to all sorts of educational and professional opportunities as he gets older. We are teaching him words in Farsi because it's important to us that he will have awareness of his Persian ancestry as well as his American ancestry. The few words that he's learning in Spanish probably won't get him very far, but I love the idea of exposing him to as many languages as possible.

How well does your son understand and speak the second language? What does he think about it? He's only 2 ½, so we're still working on language development. He completely understands everything we tell him in English, though these days, more often than not, he responds in Hebrew. He already seems to understand that there are two distinct languages, and if he says a word in one language, I can ask him how to say the same word in the other language and he does it without a problem. When he was a bit younger, he spoke more English than Hebrew, but when speaking with native Hebrew speakers, if he sensed that they didn't understand what he'd said in English, he would often switch to Hebrew. The last time we were in the US (during the summer), he suddenly had somewhat of a language development "explosion", and it happened in English. He's since caught up in Hebrew, and I'm wondering what will happen the next time we go to the US, probably in a few months' time.

How have you been able to expose your son to the culture(s) where the second language is spoken? We make annual visits to the US, and his grandparents visit us once a year in Israel. Most of his books are in English, as are his videos and DVDs (though some are in British English). He enjoys the English-language children's shows on BBC as well. As he gets older, it will be easier to expose him to American culture.

What challenges have occurred as you teach your child a second language? At this stage, there haven't really been any, other than that I find it frustrating when well-meaning Israelis whose English is far from perfect want to talk to my son in English, and I worry about the mistakes that he might pick up. I also try to correct his accent and pronunciation so that they will be more American (though British would be fun too!). I also had personal issues when he started calling me "Eema" (Hebrew for "Mommy") instead of "Mommy", and originally tried to fight it. I've since had a change of heart and decided to go with the flow, and now he calls me both.

What resources have been most useful to you? My friends in similar situations, different websites and email lists. For the most part, though, I just sort of go with my gut instincts, and it hasn't failed me yet.

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? Consistency is key. I'm fluent in both languages, and sometimes I find myself having to actively concentrate on not slipping into Hebrew with my son. Often, when he says something in Hebrew, I manage to slip it back into the chatter in English. I do whatever I can to provide him with the greatest exposure to native English, whether it be via television, videos, books, etc. I'm hoping to set up a local play group for native English-speaking children, but I just haven't had the time to do so yet. I want the speaking of English to come naturally to him, and for him to see it as something normal, as opposed to a chore. I don't want to reach a stage where I'm fighting with him about it to a point where he opts for Hebrew solely to rebel, as I've seen in some families.

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you want to comment on? The gift of bi/multilingualism! It's one of the greatest gifts that a parent can give their children on so many different levels. Unless a child has specific learning issues that would make it difficult to deal with more than one language, if parents have an opportunity to offer their children more than one native language, they should do it! I was speaking with a native Spanish speaker recently who was here in Israel visiting family. Her sister made sure that her children speak Spanish as well as Hebrew, and as a result, my friend has a wonderful relationship with her nephews. On the other hand, her brother chose not to speak Spanish with his children, and my friend has almost no relationship with her nieces because they have no common language, and that is sad for everyone involved. Being fluent/comfortable in more than one language can only be a bonus.

Thanks again, Liza! Readers, does what Liza says resonate with any of you? Have you had similar ideas or experiences or rationale?


  1. interesting on the Eema vs Mommy issue. My kids have always called me Mamma, which is the norwegian name. It feels so comfortable that when my daughter starting called me Mom while in the US for an extended stay, I didn't like it and asked her to go back to Mamma! The total opposite of Liza! :-)

    Other than that, Liza and I have similar philosophies and game-plans. We are also dear friends, so that could be a factor! ;-)

  2. Nicole and Liza--how lucky you are to have each other for support and brainstorming and empathy, even though you live so far away from each other!