Bringing Up Baby (Bilingual)…

There’s also a phonetic version in OSX – thank god!

Language is very important to me – one day, hopefully, it will even begin paying the bills. Still, it is to my ‘job’ what paint and cement-blocks are to builders. So, naturally, the imminent arrival of baby’s first words is causing undue amounts of stress.

I come from a family of exceptionally talented linguists. Due to history and circumstance, my mother’s first words were in Japanese. A spell in Switzerland added Swiss Deutsch (which she still insists is actually German), then came Hebrew and finally English. My father’s childhood was conducted in Castellano (the South American dialect of Spanish) and then he accumulated tongues as most do shoes: French, Italian, English, Hebrew and serviceable Mandarin and German.

What’s so great about this all is the number of languages I managed to absorb by osmosis as a child. All of… one.

Yes. One. Despite all the opportunities offered, I only really speak English, and more recently, sometimes-passable Hebrew. We didn’t really spend too much time as a family, and the time we did was conducted exclusively in Londonese, the only other crossover language (Hebrew) being retained as a kind of parents-only secret to be whispered in hushed tones.

Now, with history resetting and a new generation in the picture, I want to make sure that my daughter can take advantage of all the myriad of tongues of her close and extended family. But with that desire also comes intense and creeping paranoia.

What if she ignores me and only speaks Hebrew? What if she never finds the same appreciation for English that I have, or worse, is never proficient enough to read my work should it ever be published? What if she can never be native within London and the English speaking world that is still, however remote, my home?

So I’ve become the shadow, constantly following Wife and Baby around, repeating every cooed compliment or sharp chastisement in English like some demented echo.

I’m not mad, I don’t think. Language has created an insurmountable rupture in my life and separated me from my own history and even my own family. Generations of stories in Argentina, a forgotten wartime Jewish community in Japan; all of it feels as distant as Taureg tribesmen in the Sahara. I think much of the reason I write stems from trying to find some connection to those lost pasts, to remind myself (even obliquely) of their stories and to better grasp who I am and where I come from.  And I think I would be destroyed if my darling daughter experienced that same distance, with all its unnerving effects, from me.

So I’ll continue following, continue repeating, continue obsessing. Continue trying to connect the dots and the synapses in her frontal cortex until that first word comes. Then we’ll see…

One Comment on “Bringing Up Baby (Bilingual)…

  1. I’m sure you’ve already heard it, but at a young age, children can learn languages much easier. Mine is three and he is pretty much equally proficient in English and Hebrew (Israeli dad in the US). My husband just has always spoken everything to him in Hebrew.

    As an aside, I’ve met a few Israelis raised by English speaking parents. One of them told me that his kindergarten teacher thought he was so polite because he would say please and thank you (in Hebrew), but the kids without English-speaking parents did not as much. My husband now gets frustrated with me because I make my kid say please and thank you (in English) and he thinks its practically a waste of his breath.

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