Like many American Jews of the past few generations, my mother’s parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. They wanted their kids to assimilate and become full-fledged Americans, and that meant speaking English, not Yiddish: that so-called “dying” language that symbolized Jewish life in the Old World, before Hitler came along and destroyed it all. And so, my mother, like so many other American Jews, never learned her parents’ native language. Of course, it’s ironic that now I’m speaking Yiddish—and only Yiddish—with my own child, specifically so that he’ll learn and use the language. It’s also an ironic twist of history that when I speak Yiddish with my son, it’s my parents who don’t understand.
Reversing History: Raising My Son in a “Dying” Language
I’ll be honest: I enjoy the irony. It’s a positive reversal—some might say an antidote—to the modern course of Jewish history. Instead of allowing Yiddish to die, by refusing to give it to the next generation, I’m bolstering it and giving it a future. Instead of memorializing it as a nostalgic relic of the forever-gone Old World, I’m embracing it as an essential part of my modern, daily life right here in the New World. Instead of casting it aside in favor of English, in order to assimilate and become “more American,” I’m equally valuing both halves of my “Jewish-American” identity. Instead of defining monolingualism as an essential element of national pride and identity—whether English for Americans or Hebrew for Zionists—I am celebrating multilingualism as a hugely important Jewish, Zionist, and American value.
And you know, I get a lot of compliments for it. Sometimes people think it’s really cool. Others get nostalgic and tell me how they always wished their parents had spoken Yiddish with them, but alas, they hadn’t. The guy who installed our home alarm system told me my son is going to be a genius someday, because I’m raising him bilingually. At our synagogue’s barbecue for new members last weekend, somebody asked if I’d consider teaching a Yiddish class—she thinks it’d be really popular. It’s nice to be met by such positivity.
The Challenges of Raising My Son In A Language That My Family Doesn’t Know
But I’ll be honest: the fact that I’m raising my son in a language that none of my parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, or babysitters speak or understand can sometimes be uncomfortable, too. For example, when my son and I are hanging out with my parents, and my parents speak to him in English, I understand what they’re saying—but then when I speak to my son in Yiddish, it unintentionally excludes them. Mealtime conversations are particularly hard, because I want to continue interacting with my son in Yiddish, but at the same time, I want the conversations to include everyone at the table. And it’s not just about being inclusive or exclusive; I don’t want it to feel like I’m hiding secrets from people, or like I’m talking about them in a language that they can’t understand. That can be very uncomfortable when I’m at the playground with my son, for instance, and he’s interacting (or I want him to interact) with other children who are there. Sometimes I point at another child and say to my kid in Yiddish: “Do you want to say hello to them?” or “Look, so-and-so is going down the slide! Weee!” or “Hey, look, those kids want to play with you!” And if those other kids’ parents don’t understand Yiddish, will they worry what this stranger is saying about their children?
Besides all that, I want people to know what I’m saying to my son, because that’s how relationships develop, and that’s also how positive memories form. Birthday parties can be awkward, for example, when everyone laughs and smiles and sings the birthday song in English, and then I sing the Yiddish birthday song and the entire room falls silent. Of course, there’s also the “weirdo” factor, especially in a place like the United States where multilingualism is generally viewed in a negative light (even while it’s celebrated as an academic resumé builder). It sometimes feels like I don’t belong when I’m speaking a language that even my own family and friends don’t understand, and when I’m out in public there are xenophobes to worry about. That’s all really uncomfortable.
A Universal Struggle—Regardless of Language or Country
It turns out, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote about my concerns at The Bilingual Zoo, an online forum for parents who are raising their kids multilingually, and it set off one of the longest and most animated conversations on the entire site.
One person wrote about speaking to her daughter in French on a public bus in Germany, when suddenly the woman in front of them sharply spun around and insisted that they only speak German; an argument broke out, and the bus driver intervened.
Another person, who raises her kids speaking Spanish in the Netherlands, said that so many people have talked rudely about her in Dutch while riding the subway, falsely assuming that she doesn’t know the national language, that she’s just learned to stop caring what other people think of her. But when her kids got bullied in school for speaking a foreign language, and their classmates started calling them “Spaanse jochies” (little Spanish kids), they became ashamed of their language and begged her to stop speaking it with them; that was something she couldn’t ignore.
An English speaker in France wrote about not wanting to be perceived as a tourist when talking to her children in public; a Spanish speaker in the U.S. complained about always becoming the center of attention.
A Singaporean woman who speaks English with her kids while living in Japan said that she’s often perceived as a curiosity—what would an Asian-looking woman be doing speaking English to her kids, and in Japan, no less?
This is only a small sampling of the stories that people shared, but it is very representative—the same stories were told over and over, regardless of the languages or countries in question. And the barriers that are created within extended families also popped up in the comments of many participants. You can read the entire conversation at this thread.
7 Common Worries
In short, there were seven major concerns that parents on this forum expressed about speaking with their kids in a minority language:
- Some said they don’t like being stared at, or being the unwanted center of attention.
- Some said they don’t like being perceived as tourists.
- Some said they don’t like being perceived as immigrants.
- Some worried about particular languages being viewed negatively in certain countries (i.e. Spanish in the United States, or English in Mexico), thereby leading to threatening encounters.
- Some complained about being harassed in public by xenophobic strangers, and about not wanting their kids to be subjected to this, either.
- Some were concerned that their family or friends think they’re creating barriers, and they don’t want them to feel like they’re being rude or inconsiderate.
- And some said they don’t want their children to suffer: bilingual kids often describe feeling ashamed around their friends, or being treated like outsiders, or being bombarded by the same unwanted questions over and over and over.
Yet, we were all in agreement that we didn’t want to stop speaking to our children in our minority language around people who don’t know the language. Maximizing language exposure is absolutely crucial, especially with minority languages, and especially in the pre-verbal years of infancy and early toddlerhood. As well, if we start speaking to our kids in the majority language, even if only on specific occasions, we don’t want our kids to think that they no longer need to use the minority language with us. Once the kids are old enough to go to school in the majority language, they become far more likely to discard their minority language—which makes it all the more important that they continue hearing and using it outside of school.
Advice from Parents Around the World
So here was the advice that various participants offered, for dealing with this discomfort:
- Keep the end goal in mind: developing children’s bilingual abilities and identities is more important than the temporary discomfort of others.
- Enjoy the privacy. It can be fun to have a secret language that nobody around you understands!
- Go out in public with other speakers of your minority language, so that you don’t have to do it alone.
- “Overuse” the minority language in public to psychologically push past your own personal discomfort (whether by chatting your kids’ heads off, or by reading them books that you always carry around for that purpose).
- If anyone complains, talk with them politely in the majority language. You don’t even have to justify yourself. Simply by asking for the time in the majority language, you can soften their xenophobia by breaking their stereotypes and highlighting commonalities.
- If anyone complains, explain to them why you are doing it; maybe they’ll end up empathizing with you, or even thinking it’s cool or interesting.
- If anyone complains, be polite: their antagonism may stem from a fear of foreigners, so if you are polite with them, then you can alleviate their fear.
- Remember that if you are ashamed, then your kids may sense that and also become ashamed of it. But if you show pride in your language, then they will also sense that and begin to feel like their minority language is something to be proud of.
- If your kids are ashamed of their minority language, see if you can do a guest activity at their school, in order to teach their classmates fun things about your language and culture. Then your kids might not feel so weird and misunderstood amongst their friends and classmates.
- Remember that there will always be naysayers, so don’t worry about them; you can’t change their minds anyway.
- It’s not fair to expect our kids to go through the difficult effort of only speaking their minority language with us, if we don’t hold ourselves just as accountable.
- For parents of pre-verbal toddlers and infants: it will get easier when the kids start talking. Keep it up!
- Have faith that it will get easier over time, the more you get used to it.
- Embrace the feeling of being a tourist or immigrant in your own city—it gives you an interesting perspective that you might not otherwise have.
- While many people may react negatively to hearing you speak a “foreign language,” you never know when someone else might be delighted by it. You might run into someone who speaks the same language as you, or maybe you’ll bump into a student of your language, or a frequent traveler who enjoys such encounters.
- By raising our kids multilingually, and by exposing them to the languages that other people speak, we are teaching them to value diversity and to make space for all people and cultures—this is far more important than giving in to the xenophobia of friends and strangers.
- Teach your children that it is okay to be different—it will bolster their self-esteem and independence, and it will help them learn how to fit in wherever they go.
One Year Later—Still Struggling, But Things Are Getting Easier
Our conversation was so animated and productive that Adam ended up writing a blog post of his own about it, linking back to our discussion for further reading. It was a very inspirational conversation, and I’d like to think that things have gotten easier for me over the ensuing 12 months. I do feel more confident now speaking Yiddish around family and friends, and I speak/sing a lot more to my son in public than I used to, especially at the playground. (I always sing and recite poems for him when pushing him on the swing; just the other day, he was enjoying it so much, that he applauded after every song and poem!)
But the truth is, I do still struggle with this. I am a lot quieter around him—a lot quieter—when friends or relatives come to visit, even if I’m not as quiet as I used to be. I still feel slightly nervous when I speak with him in Yiddish at the playground, as if the other parents there are secretly judging me, even though I’m sure they aren’t. I still feel awkward and out-of-place speaking Yiddish to him when I drop him off or pick him up from his daycare, even though there are lots of bilingual kids in his daycare and the teachers think it’s cool. So it’s getting better, but it’s still a struggle, and I’m both heartened and saddened to know that others struggle with it, too.
It’s such a shame, you know? We should be proud of our languages, of our cultures, of our histories, of our families, of ourselves. And I am proud. And I’m nervous, and uncomfortable, and awkward, and ashamed, and I really shouldn’t feel that way—none of us should. But raising your kids in multiple languages is not an easy thing to do, and it’s especially hard when those around us, particularly close friends and family, don’t understand what we’re saying. I guess that’s simply part of the journey. And the results of that journey will be so, so worth the trouble.
Note: This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward in a slightly different form.
Hi Sam, this post really speaks to me. Thanks for mentioning me in your post (or at least I hope you were referring to me as the Singaporean mother living in Japan and speaking English)!
The funny thing is, we moved back to Singapore just recently and now my son’s Japanese has become the minority language over here. I’m still using lots of English with him but I’ve started using more Japanese AND Chinese as well. It is like we are still struggling with the same issues as before such as getting stared at with curiosity in public and such, even though our languages have switched places. Nevertheless, I feel that as long as we never give up, our children will continue to grow bilingually, proudly and happily.
Well, it is true that once our children begin speaking, we can get to see our fruits of labor, just a bit at a time. It thrills me to say that my son speaks mostly English right now and enjoys English books a lot. Thus, lots of reading is definitely vital.
My Japanese husband sometimes comments that our son sounds like a foreigner when he speaks Japanese. Does your son sound like a foreigner when he speaks Yiddish or English? Or has he started speaking yet?
Hi Mei, thanks for sharing your stories! It really is fascinating how languages can swap status as “minority language” or “majority language” depending on the context. It shows just how much is dependent on the context, rather than the language itself. It must be an interesting experience for your son to undergo such a role reversal…
My son is still too young to talk very much (17 months), though he does have a handful of words. He can say “bye” and “hi” (accompanied by hand waves), which are the same in Yiddish and English, and he says “buh” a lot, which is his way of saying the English word “binky” (totally unrelated to the Yiddish word for binky, which is “smotshkerl.”) What’s interesting, though, is that he often uses the word “no” to mean both “no” and “yes.” I’ve often wondered if he’s confusing the English word “no” with the Yiddish word “yo” (which means yes); in fact, he used to say “nyo” a lot, which might well have been a combination of “no” and “yo.” My wife thinks he’s just confused. In any case, he’s certainly not speaking enough yet to develop any kind of accent, though I imagine he’ll end up having some kind of American accent. The weird thing about Yiddish is that it’s not associated with any particular country; it’s a diaspora language, which Jews have spoken wherever we happen to live. So “authentic” Yiddish speakers from Russia tend to speak it with a Russian accent, and “authentic” Yiddish speakers from Hungary tend to speak it with a Hungarian accent, and “authentic” Yiddish speakers from Poland tend to speak it with a Polish accent. But for some reason, Americans who speak it with an American accent are criticized as “inauthentic,” which just shows how Eurocentric the discourse around Yiddish is. So I guess “speaking Yiddish like a foreigner” is really dependent on who is judging your accent, unless you’re American, in which case you’re always a foreigner…
Thanks for the great article! Lots of resonance with our family!
As the years have gone on, some of our family and close friends have learned the Yiddish happy birthday song, so that while there may be fewer singers than for the English version, it’s pretty enthusiastic. And our boys are sometimes disappointed if we don’t sing both Tsu Dayn Gebornstog AND the birthday song from Yiddish Vokh. (https://www.cs.uky.edu/~raphael/yiddish/lid.geboyrn.html)
Thanks for your reply, Ken! That Yiddish Vokh birthday song is great! It’s even better than the more traditional one. I just had this crazy idea, that maybe someone should write a few more Yiddish birthday songs, and then publish a small songbook for Yiddish birthday parties. That way we could make a whole activity/ritual out of getting our birthday songbooks out and singing lots of birthday songs, rather than just doing one in English and one in Yiddish. It’d be less awkward, way more fun, and then people who don’t know Yiddish would have all the words/translations printed in front of them. Maybe I’ll add it to my long list of future projects…
Dear Sam, I enjoyed so much reading this post of yours!!! Like you, I am raising my kids in a non-native language (Spanish in Italy). What is sometimes tough for me is receiving always the same unwanted questions over and over and over, and being compelled to justify what people view as such a weird behaviour… Italy is really really strictly monolingual… Even though most parents would love their offspring to be bilingual, they still find it odd to see a parent speaking a non-native language.
It’s nice to see I’m not alone! 😉
Hi Emilia, thanks for your kind words! I’m glad this resonated with you! I agree that it’s really frustrating to get the same questions over and over again. In my case, people often ask me what country I’m from, even though I was born here, and my parents were born here, and my grandparents were born here. People seem to assume that if you’re speaking a different language, it must be because you’re an immigrant. It actually took me a long time to figure out that this is why people were asking me this question; I had just assumed it was something about how I look. (In fact, people used to assume I’m an immigrant even before I had kids or spoke Yiddish in public.) But people have asked me what country I’m from more often now, since I started speaking with my son in public. It does get annoying after a while.
Thanks for your post – really good to read and so much of it resonated with me as someone trying to bring up my children to speak Spanish in the UK. It is working but is harder work than I had anticipated!
But what I really wanted to say was that I am someone who was brought up speaking Spanish in the UK (at a time when people were generally less accepting of it than they are now). I remember getting quite a bit of teasing from friends at school and usually being seen as the odd one out which was not much fun, but at the same time, that ‘being different’ came with its own mystique which in some ways made me more interesting to people. I was also brought up to feel proud of my cultural heritage – it wasn’t just about speaking another language it was about belonging to another culture and this was just as important as the language – indeed, it was an integral part of it.
So, like so many things in life – there are positives and negatives. I sometimes just wanted to fit in and even to this day feel like I do and I don’t belong in both countries of origin (England and Espana). But ultimately, I have also realised that mainly what belonging to two cultures and speaking two languages has done for me is opened up my mind and my world. When it comes down to it I do fit in in both countries and have found that I fit in to a whole lot more countries (I have had the fortune of traveling all over the world with my work) because the idea of seeing things differently has been with me throughout my life and is something that continues to fascinate, bemuse, and baffle me – but that also brings huge insight into humanity. I think being brought up bilingual gave me the gift of being able to connect to a wider world – and I value that tremendously.
So all you good parents out there, keep up that good work – you are not only giving your children the gift of language, you are helping them see the world in a different light – and that is invaluable!
Thank you for the great post. It’s definitely happening to us all.
I wanted to ask another question actually.
I am a Chinese born and raised in France. Never spoke Chinese at home for the sake of “integration”. But my English is not too bad and so I started talking to my daughter in English since she was 3 months old.
The issue, like you Sam, is that everyone around me speaks only French, school speaks French, nannies, all family members and daddy. So I am actually the only one.
And my daughter then logically started talking in French. She does understand everything I say, but she talks to me in French because she knows I understand.
So what should I do now? How did you all manage to get your kids to speak the minority language when the kids can see that you do speak and understand the majority one?
I’m struggling here, such a hard battle.
Thank you for your advice.
Caroline, I will share your comment with Sam and perhaps he can offer his perspective, too.
I feel your frustration. The challenge you describe is probably the most widespread difficulty experienced by parents raising bilingual kids. Because I’ve written quite a lot about this issue, please let me point you to some posts that I hope will be helpful to you…
What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language
7 Steps to Get Your Bilingual Child Using the Minority Language More Actively
Within these posts you’ll also find further links to articles that could be of some support to your situation.
At the same time, I would encourage you to join me and hundreds of other parents at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo. It’s a warm, worldwide community and you would be welcome to take advantage of the ongoing support that this community can provide. (And it’s free!) In fact, like you, quite a few of our members live in France.
Caroline, I hope these suggestions are helpful!
Kia ora Sam.
Thank you for sharing your experience and your story. Like many other parents and comment-writers on here, your words really resonated with me. We’re a multicultural family living in New Zealand. I am Maori (native Nzer) who was raised bilingually in both English and Maori. My husband is Italian and speaks English.
From the time we decided to have a family together, we decided to raise our young son (and future children) in all 3 of our languages in what is a very monolingual country. English is spoken everywhere here so our main home language is Italian (which I’m fluent in) with Maori featuring often during daily rituals like storytime and grace at mealtimes etc. Our hope is that there will be more exposure to the Maori language later on when/if we can find a good local total immersion Maori school. However, we’ve struggled to find quality early childhood services with Maori to support with the early years.
Like Yiddish, Maori for a long time was a dying language here i.e. My grandparents were beaten by teachers if they were found speaking it as they were growing up in New Zealand’s colonial past, and my parents didn’t have a choice to go to a Maori immersion school like I did as they didn’t exist. However, times are changing and it’s a pleasure being a part of a progressive multicultural nation.
At 2 years old, our son speaks the majority of his words in Italian with sign (which he picked up at daycare). He understands and responds to English and Maori and chooses interesting words or themes to produce in both those languages. For example, he knows his body parts only in Maori (thanks to one of his favourite books), and will say “go”, “please” and “more” in English (I assume because the Italian or Maori alternatives have too many syllables)… Every day is a challenge, and everyday is exciting and interesting, and full of learning for all of us.
The biggest challenge of all, of course, is surviving the ignorant views from others that what we’re doing is “useless”, “too hard” or “a waste of time”.
But we do our best and reap the rewards. 🙂
From a family down under, we salute you!
Te Ataahia, Davide and Mario Kapua
Te Ataahia, thank you for sharing your story. I’ve told Sam about your comment and I’m sure he will read it with interest.
Let me just add my applause for all the good efforts you and your husband are making. Your situation is no doubt very challenging, but your positive attitude and persistent actions will most definitely continue to be rewarded. Keep at it, day by day!
And for ongoing support, I also warmly invite you to join me and hundreds of other parents (including Sam) at The Bilingual Zoo, my friendly forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids.