Thursday, November 30, 2017

Choosing a Grandmother Tongue


My oldest grandchild was just a little more than a toddler when she gave me a puzzled look and announced in Hebrew that I didn’t speak her language very well. I had to agree but didn’t hesitate to remind her that my English was very good. She nodded at that.

“And I’m a good seamstress,” I added.

Her response was an enthusiastic nod. “The dress you made for me was wonderful.”

“What else do I do well?” Speaking in Hebrew I wanted help building my self-confidence.


“Give kisses!” she exclaimed and I gave her one right then and there.

The truth was that when she was born I asked permission from her parents to talk to her only in English. They thought it was a great idea and it worked fine until she began to communicate with words. All of a sudden the English didn’t feel natural. Why should I confuse her? I didn’t see her often enough for her to really learn the language from me. Besides, I wanted a good relationship with my grandchildren. I hadn’t had a real one with my grandfather.

He’d already been in America for fifteen years when I was born but I never heard him speak a word of English. I knew how to say, “I love you, grandfather” and “Goodbye” in German and that was it.

When we moved to Israel we settled in an Absorption Center. Not only did we have six months of free rent and utilities, we also had full-morning Hebrew lessons at no charge. Many of the women found it hard to manage all the adjustments they and their family had to make and at the same time go regularly to a language course. It wasn’t easy but I went almost every day. Whenever I felt overwhelmed and tempted to ditch school I’d remember my grandfather.

Looking back I don’t know if he couldn’t or wouldn’t learn the language of his adopted country. I do know, after trying to teach English to Israeli schoolchildren, it is a hard language to learn. Too many rules have too many exceptions and one of my students complained bitterly about needing to know it.

“When the Messiah comes and the Holy Temple is rebuilt everyone will need to know Hebrew.”

I sympathized with her but reminded her that the Messiah had not yet come and in the meantime the Department of Education demanded that everyone learn English. Personally, I’m grateful that Chinese hasn’t become the international language and it’s still English. That being the case, many of my children, their spouses, and their in-laws beg me to speak English with my grandchildren.

Therefore, I try a sentence here, a sentence there. Some are eager to learn all the words they can but most get frustrated quickly. Even so, I’ve made sure all of them know “Close the door”, “Open shut them, give a little clap, clap, clap”, how to count to ten, and of course, “I love you”.

I was all of twelve-years-old when my grandfather died. I sobbed so much at his funeral my eyes were swollen. Obviously there had been a bond between us and I loved him even without ever having had a conversation with him. However, my memories of him are cloudy at best.

I want my grandchildren to remember me well so for talks with them I stick with Hebrew. I may butcher the grammar and my accent is so thick, as the saying goes, it can be cut with a knife. Still, I speak from the heart and my grandchildren usually understand me fine. Not only that, I believe I’m giving them a life lesson that despite being Hebrew-challenged I’m able to lead a successful life.  That’s something I’d like them to remember about me long after I’m gone.

My grandparents with me in the mid-fifties

4 comments:

Batya Medad said...

I speak only English to most of my grandchildren, and since they all know that I do know Hebrew and understand it perfectly, we've always had "bilingual communications." They'd reply in Hebrew to my English plus pantomime and keywords in Hebrew.

Now that the oldest two are in the higher grades, the fruits of these efforts are ripening. They are both in the "English Speakers" classes, and the eldest one really does sound like an English speaker albeit with occasional mistakes which don't slow her down a nano-second. Her younger sister hasn't yet bit the bullet talking English to me, but she understands everything, no longer saying: "Savta, I don't understand you." My patience and persistence paid off, thank Gd. Of course, I did see them once or twice a week when they were little, and in all honesty, I would have been satisfied even if my English speaking had just given them added comprehension beyond the school curriculum.

Ester said...

That's nice it worked for you.

Batya Medad said...

It takes a long time.

Batya Medad said...

This post has been included in the latest blog roundup, so please take a look, visit the others and share. Shiloh Musings: What's New in The Blogging World

Shavua Tov,

Have a truly wonderful and blessed week