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Texting Hebrew and the Bilingual Child

By Jennie Starr 

I confess, I text my 9 and 12 year olds in Hebrew during the day and whenever I can. It began as a game, but when I got texts in return in Hebrew, I realized I was onto something. My kids study Hebrew, but mostly because I want them to, not because they asked to.  They take language classes 2-4 hours each week, but I’m always looking for fun ways to reinforce Hebrew in their daily lives and make sure it’s relevant and fun.

As parents, we want our children to be competitive in this global, multi-lingual world, and we know that knowledge of multiple languages can be an asset personally and professionally.  The ability to communicate not only in foreign countries but also with those who speak the language is a gift that opens the door to more people and experiences.  There are developmental and cognitive advantages to bilingualism too. Research studies show bilingual children are better at switching tasks and that bilingualism may help with shielding against dementia. For those of us who tried to learn a second language, but didn’t succeed, what went wrong for us? And how do we fix this for our children?

Good sense tells us that one hour of instruction weekly is not enough. Multiple hours of instruction, activities, social hours and cultural experiences are important too.  Parent behavior also matters. When we try, if not, use, the target language, our children see speaking the language as relevant for “us” and not just for them. Attending regular activities in a cultural center where the language is in use can make the difference between proficient and “not proficient” speakers; even for children of Israelis where the language may be spoken at home.

So, how do we fill our lives with these hours of instruction, social hours and cultural experiences?  There are ample opportunities in our communities for parents who want to develop a bilingual child.  Public libraries offer Foreign Language Story Times Foreign Language playgroups are listed as Meet Ups.  Many preschools offer immersion programs with songs, art, dance and games which are great while children are young and able to hear the distinctions in sounds and pronunciation. Private school options abound, but there are also dual-language public charter schools nation-wide and you may even have a Hebrew Language Charter School near you. Summer camps in Israel and bilingual options in the United States are great ways to jumpstart language learning in an intensive but fun experiential way.

A variety of programs are thriving in American cities catering to Israeli-Americans but also local Jews in their communities. They provide a mix of entry level and reinforcement programs as well as intensive options needed to develop proficiency. In San Diego, we founded the Tarbuton, Israeli Cultural Center, but there are many others including the ICC in Palo Alto and in Canada Kachol Lavan in Toronto to name a few. These Centers offer language instruction and even some classes in public schools with both weekday and week-end hours; the kind of flexibility that busy families demand and need. Hebrew speaking playgroups, free Hebrew story times, such as the Israeli-American Council’s Sifriyat Pijama program, bilingual Jewish holiday celebrations, and dance and singing performing groups all encourage younger sibling and parent participation in Israeli cultural activities.

While these experiences can never replace authentic experiences in Israel, we know they help our children see Israel’s National language as increasingly relevant in their lives and we believe they strengthen our children’s connections to the Jewish community, to Israel, and their Israeli-American and Jewish friends as well.

Jennie Starr is the Founder and Director of the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center in San Diego. She advocates for Hebrew Language Charter Schools, introduced Hebrew classes in elementary public schools and serves on her District DELAC Board, for English language support (ESL), encouraging maintenance of Heritage language skills too.  The Tarbuton was recognized in 2012 by Slingshot as a top 50 innovative Jewish organization in North America. The Tarbuton is also proud to be part of the Nitzan network. The Tarbuton is supported by the Leichtag Foundation, the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, the Israeli-American Council, and the World Zionist Organization. To learn more about our Centers and programs, contact us at info@tarbuton.org