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Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Bilingual 10-Year-Old Israeli and a Used Dog

I've had to cut back on posting embarrassing personal stories about our kids because, well, I suddenly realized that at some point they are going to be in charge of picking out my nursing home.  

But some stories are just too cute not to share.

Our youngest son, Yonah, recently turned 10.  He is a good student and an excellent athlete.  And in so many ways he is already far more Israeli than Zahava or I will ever be.

But despite our shortcomings in Hebrew, we recognize that mastery of (or at least proficiency in) English is the key to Yonah's future opportunities.  So we have been taking pains to speak to him exclusively in that language at home, and have even invested in a private tutor to work with him on honing his English reading and writing skills.

But invariably, a kid who spends 98% of his waking hours speaking, reading, writing and thinking in Hebrew, is bound to have a few rough patches in his use and understanding of English; rough patches which he strives valiantly to bridge with Israeli ingenuity and logic.

For example, a few months ago Yonah had gone to sleep with wet hair after a bedtime shower and came downstairs in the morning with his hair sticking out at crazy angles.  He sat down at the breakfast table, composed his question carefully, and asked, "Did someone come upstairs while I was sleeping and try to haircut me?"

When the rest of the family had finished wiping away the tears of laughter, we gently explain to him that, while it may be the norm in Hebrew, English does not automatically embrace other parts of speech masquerading as verbs.  Had someone come upstairs and tried to give him a haircut?  No.  

The jury is still out if this particular lesson will take hold.

Another ongoing battle is Yonah's penchant for beginning interrogative sentences with the word, 'right'... as in, "Right, you told me I could go play football [soccer] with my friends after school if I took out the trash?"

While this arrangement may be perfectly acceptable in Hebrew, it is jarring to the native English speaker's ear, and as a last resort we have begun affecting deafness whenever he does this.  

After three or four tries without getting a response, he finally sighs deeply, rolls his eyes and says, "You said I could go play football [soccer] with my friends after school if I took out the trash, right?"... to which he gets an immediate positive or negative reply (depending on the accuracy/truthfulness of his statement).

Another little language tic which makes me want to have him surgically fitted with electrodes so I can surreptitiously trigger a corrective remote-control shock is his use of the words 'many' and 'much' interchangeably.  No matter how many times I explain to him that 'many' is for discrete units (people, tires, hours, meatballs, etc.), and 'much' is for things that are measured in graduated amounts (sand, time, cereal, juice, etc.), he still asks, "How much people are coming for Shabbat?".

And on the rare occasions when he does manage to get a handle on this important distinction, he'll come out with something truly breathtaking like, "How much time until we get there?" (which, while technically correct, usually provokes a response like, "Did you mean, how soon will we be there?")... sending him into an annoyed silence (which is a serendipitous turn of events on most long car trips).

I'm sure to some of you reading along, this all sounds a bit pedantic (or even mean-spirited) on our part.  But we see ourselves as the last bulwark against the day when a 27 year old Yonah will walk into a job interview with an International widget company and ask, "Right, zis is where zeh interview is for zeh associate widget engineer?  You can to tell me how many time the interview will take?"

Then there are the idioms which aren't technically wrong... but which often require a gentle correction, none-the-less.  

For example, a few months ago Yonah was reminiscing about our deceased dog, Jordan.  Jordan was already part of the family when Yonah was born, and we adopted our present dog, Lulu, when Yonah was old enough to remember her arrival.  So in an effort to gain a better understanding of family lore, his question to me was, "Did we get Jordan as a puppy or was she a used dog?".  

It took everything in my power not to laugh.  I think I even bit my tongue to stem the belly laugh that was brewing.  Yonah is old enough to know that adult animals that are adopted often come from a previous owner... but his tenuous grasp of English idioms tripped him up... and will almost certainly continue to 'out' him in the future as someone who is not a native English speaker.  

We've all had those moments where we've been conversing with a stranger whose English is perfect and unaccented... until some shibboleth comes tumbling awkwardly off the stranger's tongue, allowing us to make a mental note that there is a bit of 'international flavor' in the speaker's back-story.

By the way, I may be a bit of a pedant, but I didn't have the heart to shatter such a touching moment of family reminiscence.  In response to Yonah's sweet inquiry about our previous dog... I simply smiled and said, "Yes, Yonah... Jordan was a used dog".  

Posted by David Bogner on December 22, 2013 | Permalink

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Little tip if you don't want your kids outed in the States as foreigners: show them which is the penny, which is the nickel and which is the dime. Personal experience...

Posted by: Moish | Dec 22, 2013 5:33:10 PM

I had a dear friend who was not a native English speaker. She once asked someone if they'd been in the country, "a long distance."

Posted by: beth | Dec 22, 2013 7:42:51 PM

I am ROFLMAO. I can really relate, being married to an Israeli whose English is at times.....questionable..

Posted by: Marsha in Englewood | Dec 22, 2013 9:09:29 PM

Can't come down on one side or the other on this one. Charming story. Wonderful problem to have. I look forward -- with the grandchildren.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Dec 22, 2013 10:34:56 PM

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