My Children Guard My Tongue
First Published in Horizons Magazine in 1996
It’s a humbling experience being a mother, but it’s even more humbling being a bilingual one. I guess I’m giving myself more credit than I deserve, though. I’m not really bilingual; I’m more what you would call non-lingual. As I learn more Hebrew, I forget more English, and whereas I once sounded like the university graduate I was, nowadays I more closely resemble a high-school dropout. And when it comes to Hebrew, well, there are preschoolers who speak better than I do. That wouldn't be so bad, except the preschoolers are my children and they and their older siblings are embarrassed by me.
“Don’t talk to my friends,” one son always instructs me. “If you want them to know anything, tell me. I’ll tell them.”
Yesterday I overheard my daughter tell her friends, “My mother only sounds stupid in Hebrew. In English she’s really smart.”
“I’m not alone. There are countless immigrant mothers all over Israel who have to deal with two languages and raising children at the same time. Everyone has her own method. I have one friend who refuses to speak Hebrew after six o’clock in the evening. She bought an answering machine just to screen phone calls. Another friend tells me she won’t talk to her children unless they speak to her in English.
My youngest son and I have a great relationship. I speak to him in English and he answers me in Hebrew. Usually we understand each other, Of course, living in Israel, I have heard countless opinions about this method. Most recently it was a taxi driver who gave me a piece of his mind.
“What are you doing?” he exclaimed, looking at me and not the traffic. “People pay good money for private English lessons and your son could have it for free!”
I started to explain to him the importance of communication between a parent and a child and not wanting to inhibit my son, but got bogged down trying to remember the word for “communication”. Already I had addressed the driver in the feminine gender, and my five-year-old, just like his siblings, was embarrassed.
But it’s not just that I’m an embarrassment; my children enjoy nothing better than laughing at my mistakes. Believe me, there have been plenty of them throughout the years. Like the time we moved from the Absorption Center, and I told my new neighbor that we still had to go back to get our beds, only I said “meitim” (the dead) instead of “meitot” (beds). No wonder she never let her children come over to play.
Then there was the time another neighbor called up and frantically told me that she’d blown the fuse to her whole house. Understanding her excitement and little else, I wished her mazel tov and hung up. She was persistent, though, and kept calling until she got hold of my husband to help her out.
Unfortunately, it’s not only the Hebrew speakers with whom I have problems communicating. Since the ingathering of the exiles I have had to cope with French accents, Eastern European Yiddish, and South African lingo.
It’s the latter that gives me the most problems. They say they are talking English, but I have my doubts. Take, for example, the time a new family, straight from Johannesburg, moved into the neighborhood. They had the most adorable two-year-old twins who kept their mother constantly on the run. On their second day in the country I met the woman in front of her house.
“Have you seen the dummies?” she asked me after we’d introduced ourselves.
“No, I can’t say that I have,” I answered, horrified that anyone would call her children that, no matter how naughty they were. I had just made up my mind I would stay far away from this family, when her husband came rushing towards the house.
“I found them,” he yelled, waving two pacifiers in his hand. It was then that I realized “dummy” is South African for pacifier.
It was this last incident that made me see that there are definite advantages to my communication problem. When someone hurts my feelings now, I can assume I just misunderstood him. Not only has it become easier to give the benefit of the doubt, but I’m listening to far less lashon hora.
Perhaps I should rephrase that. I may be hearing as much lashon hora as I heard in the States, but now I understand a lot less. Surely even my children would agree that I deserve some credit for that. After all, I need all the credit I can get.
Now, eighteen years later, my Hebrew had improved enough for me to be able to speak to my grandchildren in their mother tongue. My children no longer admit to being embarrassed by me. In fact, they have told me they are proud of us for making Aliyah. I do have to admit that it wasn't always easy to adjust to living in the Holy Land, but it sure has been worth the effort.
lashon hora: harmful gossip