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I was wondering if you all can help us with a problem. My wife, US born, lived in Israel for over 4 years and is fluent in Hebrew. I understand bits here and there, but am not fluent.
Since our current 2 yr and 3 mo old daughter was born, my wife has been speaking exclusively Hebrew to her all day about 4 days of the week, the other days English. I speak exclusively English. We also do Hebrew language playgroups, read Hebrew books, do Hebrew language songs (more than English) and movement games, and there are other exposures as well.
Our daughter’s English language development is outstanding, and she’s way ahead of her age for everything verbal. My wife says her comprehension of the Hebrew is seemingly perfect. She at an earlier age would mix her use of the two languages, but now she’s settled into English and won’t voluntarily speak Hebrew even if prompted, with the occasional exception of some phrases and words here and there. My wife often repeats her English responses back to her in Hebrew and the playgroup leader reports and does the same.
QUESTION: What can we do to encourage her to speak more Hebrew without making it an onerous “requirement” for her to reply? I’ve heard this same complaint from other bilingual households, some even doing far more exposure than we do (including from some second language at home households) and some have reported it takes almost until the school years when they learn the spoken language there (as she will) or even the pre-teen years for some enthusiasm for kids to reply in the second language to develop, and we don’t want to wait that long.
We have a new 4 mo old baby as well and we don’t want to repeat whatever “errors” got us to where we are now. Any suggestions?? Thank you!
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It sounds like you and your wife are both putting a lot of positive effort and energy into the Hebrew, but I cannot help but to wonder why your wife only speaks Hebrew 4 days of the week. Speaking 4 days of the week in Hebrew and 3 in English is demonstrating to your daughter that it is alright to communicate with your wife in English. On top of that, you are already speaking to your daughter in English. No wonder her English linguistic development is advanced! And, that is certainly something you can be proud of, but in order for the Hebrew to take a more active role in your daughter’s everyday life, it would seem reasonable that the Hebrew continues more actively every day. Also, you don’t mention in which language you and your wife communicate, but I am guessing it is English. This too is added English input your daughter is receiving. Your wife could speak with you in Hebrew and translate in English AFTER; this way the child hears/observes the Hebrew communication first. It is time and energy consuming, but well worth it. Have you considered improving your Hebrew, so that there could be more familial time spent only in Hebrew? This would also demonstrate to your daughter the importance of Hebrew in your lives and you would provide a good example for her. In short, you seem like you are both doing a lot of necessary things for the child to be immersed in Hebrew, but there are more things you could be teaching with your own behavior which supports the Hebrew instead of supporting the English which she seems to have picked up fine. I don’t mean to sound critical. It is always easy to provide a window-view of situations, and less easy or less transparent are things when you are there and doing. My daughter is 6 yrs. She still speaks Latvian wonderfully, fluently, and voluntarily; however, there are a lot more needed prompts these days (me-Latvian; her father-English). Her father could definitely take a more active role in supporting her Latvian development, but I do not try to fault him for not having that in his consciousness. I think her going to (American) school and my working so much work against her language development, but all of my effort with her is in Latvian all the time. I am homeschooling her in reading, writing, vocabulary, and folklore, but only when we find a few hours every few weeks. It is not enough, but the important thing is to just keep at it and talk to them in the desired language. (Besides the English at school, she is in a Chinese immersion environment five days a week for 1/2 a day. So, she really has the message that different is good.) One final point, and I think I’ve rambled, I would say that it is never too late to adjust, to change, to rethink and redo. I think that is true for most things. I have a few girlfriends in my life with children who spoke no Latvian despite their parents best (but mixed) efforts. In two separate instances, the children are beginning to use Latvian in a social circumstances, starting to use some words, but more importantly understanding (ages 6 and 3). This is always wonderful. Good luck to you and your family, and may you all enjoy this adventure!!!
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This is a very common phenomenon in bilingual families and it doesn’t always mean that there hasn’t been enough exposure to the language. Usually it just means that the child hasn’t felt the need to speak the language even if she could. Your daughter understands Hebrew (which has probably been a factor in her advanced English skills too), that’s already wonderful! Like you, I am not a fan of requiring children to speak a certain language (especially as she is allowed to speak it with her mother on several other days a week), I would rather focus on finding ways to create a need for her to speak Hebrew. When she is in a situation (maybe even repeatedly) where she feels the need to speak the language, she most probably will. For us the solution to this was to leave the children as often as possible alone with the monolingual French grand-parents. I understand that this is not an option for you, but perhaps you could find within the Hebrew speaking community “linguistic babysitters” who could provide language immersion to your daughter. The best option would be for these persons never to speak English in front of your daughter and, better yet, have children whose majority language is Hebrew. Children playing with children is a winning combination for language learning, provided that they don’t both have the same language as the majority one or they will choose that one every time (it makes sense, it takes less effort). My husband’s brother lives in Sweden and his children are passive bilinguals in French (which in my opinion is better than not bilinguals at all!) probably largely due to the fact that they have never spent time alone with the French grandparents or other monolingual French persons. Over the Christmas holidays their 4,5-year-old daughter played with our 6-year-old and after 7 days of playing together our niece was saying not only words but actual phrases in French – but only to our daughter, with whom the need to communicate was big enough! I believe that had the situation lasted longer she would have extended this to us adults too. I hope they keep creating similar situations for her in Sweden and we’ll be able to speak to her in French this summer! Best of luck, I would be very interested in hearing how everything turns out! best regards, Annika French-Finnish family, children 6 an 11, living in Finland and using OPOL [email protected]
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Two quick suggestions:
Consider switching to One person one language for a while. We’ always been an OPOL household, but we may be switching to [email protected] as our four year old has started kindergarten in my husbands language. Point being that maybe switching models after while makes sense to adapt to new situations. It makes for some interesting dinner conversation sometimes with me in English and my husband in German
Can she visit an only Hebrew speaking household for a week or so? I’ve always found that when my daughter comes back from my relatives, her English makes amazing progress. Equally so when she spends a bit of time with my in-laws speaking German.
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I am writing about bilingualism and would be very interested to hear about your possible change in language strategy, would you mind talking with me about it? you can contact me directly at [email protected] brgds, Annika