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My kids are not deficient, they’re bilingual!

The teacher thinks my kindergarten kids should have Hebrew as their mother tongue, but our Russian home is the best gift we could give them
Illustrative. Students at the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy are immersed in a bilingual environment from the moment they walk through the doors -- even the kindergarteners. (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)
Illustrative. Students at the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy are immersed in a bilingual environment from the moment they walk through the doors -- even the kindergarteners. (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)

“Please fill in these forms as soon as you can,” said the kindergarten teacher to me, handing me the documents, which say that I give my full agreement to the interference of a child psychologist, who would assess my kids’ progress and language competence.

“Your children are sweet, but they are way behind other children, and perhaps they need some professional help, such as an urgent interference of a speech therapist. Besides, if you want them to stay another year in the kindergarten, you absolutely must let the psychologist evaluate your kids. Without this assessment I cannot recommend for them to stay another year in preschool education,” she added with a gusto of an experienced professional, who has seen the likes of me, a mother of kids born in a country whose language they should have absorbed with their mother’s milk.

Shocked and bewildered, I nodded rapidly, picking up my twins at two o’clock.

Both my husband and I were born in the former USSR, in a culture in which authority is not to be questioned, but obeyed without a flicker of hesitation. Therefore, when the kindergarten teacher ruled that my almost 5-year-olds are incompetent in one way or another, I took her words at face value, berating myself for neglecting their intellectual development.

After a few hours had passed and I was able to think clearly again, and once my husband had come home, we reassessed our position. As native Russian speakers living in Israel, we wish to preserve our language and culture, and pass this knowledge to our children. We wish to enable them not only to speak in Russian, but to enjoy the language the way we enjoy it, by reading original Russian literature, watching movies, debating anything from trivial things to art and politics. Our desire is akin to that of Russian emigres to France and Germany after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The offspring of these people mastered the mother-tongue of their parents as their own.

Our aspirations are motivated less by the imagined prestige of this phenomenon, than, to a large extent, by the fact that our own culture is Russian, the tongue of our hearts is Russian, and hence, our kisses, caresses, and words spoken in the most intimate moments of tenderness are in Russian only. That is why our twins attended a Russian speaking kindergarten until the age of 4 and a half. We were certain that once they start attending a public preschool system, they would acquire Hebrew as a second language in a matter of months, especially since we were planning to leave them there for two years, both to enable majority language acquisition and to allow them to ripen emotionally. We were also sure that, in a country of immigrants, such as Israel, this process is natural and preschool professionals are well aware of it. Little did we know that we would encounter total misunderstanding and criticism of why we had neglected to expose our kids to Hebrew much sooner, on the part of the aforementioned experts.

The preschool system apparently is not designed to take potentially bilingual children into account. When preschoolers appear not to know the language of the country they inhabit, Hebrew in our case, it is perceived as a serious oversight by the parents, a cognitive gap in a child’s development, something that must be taken care of urgently by child development professionals. For a reason unknown and inconceivable to us, preschool professionals are oblivious to the process of a second language acquisition, despite this country’s pride in its multiculturalism.

I’ll note that in the Arab sector, in comparison, kids start learning Hebrew, after acquiring Arabic as their mother tongue — only from the second grade. No one considers them incompetent or cognitively underdeveloped. The children go through a natural process of acquiring a second language after having a relative mastery of the first. While it is a known fact that children in multilingual homes generally acquire the second language more slowly than their peers, for whom the majority language is their native one [ii], I wonder whether teachers of young children are familiar with this aspect of multilingualism, and, if they are, why then would a system deliberately ignore a reasonable need to make children bilingual at the initial stage of their development.

Such impatience on the part of the preschool system is mind-boggling.

It is interesting, of course, that as newcomers, we ourselves were not regarded as different in any way, cognitively or otherwise, as it was clear that we needed time to acquire the majority language. This is the case with all immigrants in all countries. I came to Israel at the age of 11, and my acquisition of Hebrew took me several months until I was completely proficient in it. My husband was a similar case, coming to the country in his late teens. Why then is the case so different for kids who were born in Israel? Why does the system expect native Israelis to automatically speak its language first?

After numerous discussions and emotional tribulations, we have reached the conclusion that we will go along with the kindergarten teacher’s recommendations.

“We have no objection for them to be cognitively assessed,” we replied, “so long as such assessment is conducted in Russian, so that they can understand the tasks they are asked to perform.” Addressing our concerns, she assured us that the psychologist would only give tips on how to improve the twins’ further development, and confirm the need for another year in preschool. We have also agreed to seek the support of the speech therapist, which itself may serve as an additional exposure to the majority language outside of home, so there is an added value in that.

But cooperative as we may be for the sake of our children’s successful transition into the community language, I cannot but ponder over the rather artificial sense of urgency and even anxiety regarding the kids’ temporary lack of knowledge of Hebrew. Instead of causing such distress and a waste of health insurance money, all the teacher should have done is give us is just more time to allow for a natural second language acquisition, as it happens in the case of kids of immigrants.

A week after we signed the papers allowing a psychologist to evaluate our kids, they came home telling us that some “aunt” asked them questions. “She asked us what we like to do at home,” my daughter said. “And what did you say?” I asked in a tone implying I already knew the answer, expecting them to say they read with mommy and daddy in Russian. I also thought they would mention a new activity we have begun — me reading children’s books to them in Hebrew, something I know the psychologist would have appreciated. “We said that I like drawing and coloring,” said my daughter innocently. “And I like building,” said my son with authority. “She also asked us what our parents’ names are, and we told them,” said my girl consolingly, as if sensing a tad of disappointment in my smile. They were able to pass this information across through an older girl, a friend of theirs, who already speaks both languages and translated into Hebrew what they answered in Russian.

This encounter with the psychologist ensures, hopefully, that my children stay in the kindergarten for another year, letting them enter first grade at the age of 6 and nine months old. This is something both the kindergarten teacher and we agree on, as another year in preschool would ensure their acquisition of Hebrew. “Mommy, let me read this book to you,” said my girl, wanting to change the subject. “Sure,” I replied looking at “Little Red Riding Hood” she carried.

This experience has made us wonder about the choices we make in life for our children and for us, and how the system, an educational, preschool system in this case, discourages us to go against the acceptable norm. It is a daunting task not to succumb to the pressure of society, but is a worthwhile one. Bilingualism is one of the best gifts parents can give their children. In addition to the emotional and cultural value of mastering two languages at an early age, research shows that bilingual children are more successful in life that their monolingual peers.[iii] Although this may entail admonishments from kindergarten teachers and attending arguably unnecessary meetings with a speech therapist or any other specialist, we are glad we have chosen this path.

[i] Lauren Lowry, Francois Grosjean, Christina Bosemark

[ii] Lauren Lowry, Christina Bosemark

[iii] Lauren Lowry

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