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Dual with Words

Yael Schuster

From Jerusalem to Kiryas Joel, many frum women are raising their kids with more than one language. How can we help our children develop — and maintain — fluency in two languages?

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

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BROADER HORIZONS “Language is more than just a collection of words,” Debby says, “it’s so intertwined with culture. The better you speak a language, the more you understand the culture of those who speak it, which allows you to broaden your understanding of people”

W hen Faigy Folger was seven years old, she moved from Buenos Aires to Brooklyn, knowing not a word of English. Bais Yaakov of Boro Park placed her in the Yiddish class, where the teachers and girls spoke both Yiddish and English. Faigy moved in April; by July, she was managing in both Yiddish and English, and by the following September she was conversing comfortably in both languages.

If you moved from Brooklyn to Buenos Aires today, how would your Spanish be in five months?

The brains of young children are singularly primed for learning language. Beyond that, learning a second language lays the neurological groundwork for a third: The more languages a person learns, the more he “gets” the concepts of language, making each subsequent language easier to acquire.

As Faigy was jumping rope in her two new languages, she was strengthening linguistic muscles that she would unknowingly need years later. As rebbetzin to Rabbi Arie Folger, Faigy has moved often, making her home in Antwerp, Basel, Munich, Strasbourg, and currently, Vienna. In each place, she quickly picked up the language of the land, be it French, Swiss-German, or German.

Goldie Sternbuch grew up in Antwerp speaking this unbelievable heptad: Dutch, German, French, English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Flemish (with a smattering of Hungarian thrown in). “In Belgium, it’s fairly easy to pick up new languages, since you’re surrounded by them,” Goldie says. “In a yeshivah/Bais Yaakov classroom, five or six languages can be heard at the same time, since everyone speaks something else at home.”

For decades, speaking a second (or third or fourth) language was viewed as an interference, hindering intellectual development. Today researchers say it is precisely this interference that strengthens a child’s executive function — skills such as switching attention between two things, staying focused, and holding and manipulating information in one’s mind. Bilingual children develop a heightened ability to monitor and keep track of their environments, in order to assess which language to speak at any given time. Doing this results in greater mental flexibility, such as thinking out of the box to solve problems.

Research has shown that being bilingual also provides an edge in social skills. Having to determine which language to speak to whom trains a child to consider the perspective of others. (See sidebar: “The Benefits of Being Bilingual.”)

The ideal way to raise a true bilingual, the pros say, is this: Starting from birth, each parent speaks to the child in a different language, exclusively. At least one parent must be bilingual to achieve this. In this scenario, the child absorbs both languages naturally, and if the parents are consistent, the child won’t confuse the two. When a young child speaks two languages, it’s normal for him to borrow words from one when speaking the other; as his vocabulary in each language grows, this will taper off.

Swimming in a Sea of Language

Such test-tube conditions are nice, but most of the time, children are raised bilingually as a matter of circumstance: as the children of immigrants, or by living in a community that intentionally speaks a language different from the host-country language, such as Yiddish.

A number of recent studies have shown young bilingual children to have advanced ability to understand the perspective of others, crucial for effective communication

The degree of fluency achieved in a second language is determined most by one thing: immersion. Throw an English-speaking child into an all-Hebrew environment, and his Hebrew will explode like dynamite. “If an American child moves to a place like Bnei Brak, his Hebrew may surpass his English by the end of his first year in school,” says Chaya Fine, an American-born speech therapist who lives in Sanhedria Murchevet and works with bilingual children.

Yet that may not be the case in other cities. Whereas years ago the challenge for American immigrants in Israel was to ensure that their children maintained English, today the greater challenge is often for children of immigrants to master Hebrew. A person can be born in Israel, live there his entire life, and never develop a native-sounding Hebrew.

“Twenty years ago, when an English-speaking child entered the Israeli school system, by Chanukah he knew Hebrew — he was immersed in it all day long,” Chaya maintains. “Today, in places like Ramat Eshkol, where English is common in the playgrounds and schools, it can easily take two to three years to develop solid Hebrew.”

When a child speaks English at home and prefers to play with English-speaking friends, full immersion often doesn’t happen. It takes effort to provide enough Hebrew in a child’s environment for him to develop fluency. Books, CDs, language tutors, and after-school programs (chugim) in Hebrew are all helpful, as is hiring Israeli babysitters. But the most important piece by far is social exposure.

“Invite Hebrew-speaking friends, and if needed, up the ante with special activities,” suggests Chaya. “Until my twins were four, they spoke no Hebrew. When they started school, they made a decision to speak only English. Their attitude was, the world could speak to them in Hebrew, but they’d always have each other to speak English to, so they didn’t need Hebrew. I had to bribe them to invite Hebrew-speaking friends over, and needed more bribery to get them to actually speak to these friends in Hebrew. Eventually, the Hebrew came.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 540)

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