It’s very important to me and my husband that our children be able to read, write, and speak English fluently. It’s mostly because we want them to be able to communicate effectively with their American relatives (all their grand- and great-grandparents, plus aunts, uncles and cousins), but we are also aware of how the mastery of English can benefit them academically in the future. We basically saw bilingualism as a gift that can be easily given, and we didn’t want to forgo the opportunity.
So, the rule in our house is our children must speak to us in English. They can speak to each other and their friends in Hebrew or Hebrish. But they must speak English to me and my husband. It seems to be working well, since during our recent trip to the States, a common refrain from friends and relatives, upon interacting with my children was, “You would never know they’re Israeli!” And I took this as a compliment.
I was curious to know if insisting on English was a typical arrangement in Anglo households, so I asked around, and received many interesting answers and insights.
In households where both parents are native English-speakers, it is fairly common that the children are required to speak and answer their parents in English. Many of these parents said they “pretend” they don’t understand if their children speak to them in Hebrew, or request that their children repeat themselves in English. In my home, when we attempted this, my oldest daughter (my “most Israeli” child) was not compliant when asked to repeat herself in English. Now when she says things like, “There was a parpar on the nadneda in the gan sha’ashuim.” We say, “Oh, there was a butterfly on the see-saw in the park?” And she will usually repeat what we said.
In households where one parent is a native English-speaker, and the other is Israeli, most told me they are not strict about English, and their children understand English, but do not speak it. Some said each parent was strict about speaking to their children, and insisting on responses, in their respective native tongues, and the children were fluent in both languages.
There were a few parents who said that they do not push their children to speak English, and while their fluency is not up to the level of a child of the same age in an English-speaking country, it’s still better than most of their Israeli counterparts, and that was fine with them.
So, the feeling I got from most of the responses was that their children’s mastery of English is very important or somewhat important to most Anglo parents.
But I did receive one response that gave a unique perspective on language and child-rearing that never even crossed my mind, but is certainly a relevant point, and something to consider. The response was from a woman who informed me that while both she and her husband are Anglo, and they speak to their children mostly in their native tongue, they made a conscious decision not to insist that their children speak English.
Their reasoning is that their children are already at a disadvantage as children of immigrant parents, and they want them to be able to integrate into Israeli society as smoothly as they possibly can. “Communication is so difficult for children, even without the added pressure of mastering two languages,” she wrote to me. “I consider it the biggest compliment when people who know my kids are shocked that I am an American.”
And it’s true – each language comes with it’s own unique “culture.” It changes the way you think, the way you act, what is considered funny, what is considered offensive. So what do you think? Should parents push their children to be bilingual? Or is it better to focus their energies on absorbing and integrating into the culture around them, as those may be things their parents, as immigrants, will not be able to relay to them?