When Language Fails

Languages are a gift. I have always said that. There are those who move across the world to a land where English is not the mother tongue and then raise their children happily in that other language…until the children grow and then struggle in school to learn the language that could have been given to them. I’ve always thought that to be a shame.

On one of my earliest visits to Israel, I visited with a family – the wife was from the States; the father was from South Africa. And all around me, as I played with their younger children as the older ones struggled with their English assignments. I wasn’t married at the time, but even then, I understood that it didn’t have to be that way; that those parents could have given their children the gift of a language.

My children are all bi-lingual – yes, to varying degrees. The younger ones, especially, are more likely to be missing an English word; they all have little exposure to American culture (something that doesn’t bother me in the least). No, they haven’t seen all the Disney movies and I’m not sure how many of them know who or what Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was.

When faced with raising bi-lingual children, there are many recommendations. Some say to speak your native language at home (English) and let school, friends and society teach them Hebrew. I have friends who are adamant that their children speak English at home. That’s not me. When Shmulik was very young, at first he was slow to grasp the Hebrew and I worried. As soon as he became comfortable in Hebrew, it was the language of his brain, the language he preferred. He would speak to me in Hebrew and I would respond in English.

My husband told me that I should force Shmulik to speak in English during our conversations, and I tried…once. “Never mind,” Shmulik answered as he walked away.

Never mind?

No, I told my husband. Just no. I was not going to shut down communication with my son over language.

Today, Shmulik speaks English with us in the house but like all my children – between themselves, they converse, they discuss, they fight and they argue – all in Hebrew. And truth be told, I love it.

When you’ve been in a country for almost 20 years, your native language doesn’t always feel so native. Last week, I was lecturing in class when I said something. I didn’t need the way others were looking at me to realize I had said something strange.

“On the space…on the space….” I said again, “you know, al hamakom, how do you say that in English?”

“On the spot,” they answered – almost everyone…ah yes….on the spot.

Yesterday, one of the students (thanks, Ezra) sent me this hysterical sign – it points to the path for handicapped people – where there will be ramps rather than stairs. Israel, despite being an ancient country, is in the forefront of handicapped accessibility. With so many who have been wounded and disabled by war and terrorists, we have tried hard to raise the quality of life of all those who need this assistance. By law, all new government and public buildings must be built with ramps and railings – whatever is needed.

So, the sign should have said something like “Handicapped Access” or something…the Hebrew says “Handicapped Path” the English, however, seems to have failed…

5 Comments on When Language Fails

  1. As a mom with a child who has Down Syndrome, I am familiar with most signs for the disabled, but I laughed out loud at that one. An innocent translation, no doubt. Too funny!

  2. I also have only spoken English to my kids. Today as adults they are all fluent, though there was a time when one couldn’t get out more than a word or two, and that word was “park,” when my parents were visiting. His one sentence was: “I want to go to the park.” We rehearsed it!

    One important advantage was that they never heard nor inherited my awful accent, and their Hebrew is totally excellent and native.

  3. Your oldest son doesn’t know what Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is either 🙂

  4. Lauren – you aren’t going to rectify that minor oversight in his knowledge of American culture, or lack thereof, are you? Well, glad to hear he’s still got holes that I proudly installed 🙂

  5. There was a sign exactly like that a few years ago outside Shaar Yafo (the Old City, in Jerusalem).

    They realized the translation was wrong and changed it. To what?
    “Disabled passage.”

    After that, I think they finally got it right . . .

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