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But This is America!

September 8, 2013

So I had an interesting experience over Rosh Hashanah.  I was in synagogue, and I was wandering around with my youngest during the sermon – yes, yes, I know, I should have been in the quiet room listening – but instead, I was out and being social, chatting with a few folks.  When my toddler wandered a bit far away, I reached out my hand to him and called him back in Hebrew.  Perfectly normal, and he obeyed immediately.  (Both kids understand “תן לי יד, בבקשה”.)  I turned back to my conversation partners… and one was aghast.

“You’re making your kids learn Hebrew!” she gasped at me.  “Let them be kids.  Use English.”

I pointed out that a) I live in the Orthodox neighborhood, so it’s a useful thing for them to pick up, b) that we’re Jews (and my viewpoint on “Jewish American” versus “American Jew” can wait for another post), and c) it’s good for them to learn another language.

“But this is America!” she insisted.  “They should speak English!”

Now… omitting the rest of the story and getting to lunch after services with the wife, I was discussing the matter when she concurred with the basic statement – “If you live here in the United States, you should speak English.”  There’s a distinction between the two viewpoints:  My wife actually means that if you live here in the ‘States, you should learn English – the language of the majority of citizens – and what you do in private is your own business.  This other person was actually advocating that I’m making my kids somehow strange/different/other by giving them multilingual exposure.  That because I’d rather the kids call me אבא rather than “Dad” is wrong or weird.  (She expressed a similar sentiment, muted, about the fact that my parents are “Bubbie and Zayde” rather than some variant of “Grandma and Grandpa”, and the full-blown shock returned when it was pointed out that I was born here, in Baltimore, to a family that’s been in the States for over a century.)

And this part of the problem with people picking up foreign languages in the United States, I think.  There’s this lingering sense that folks who speak another language – not English – at home are somehow not “American”, that we’re turning our backs on something and holding ourselves aside, that we’re trying to escape or reject something.

Which of course is nonsense, but still…

(On the other hand, you should have seen her surprise when I pointed out the other languages that I speak as well…  Apparently, I’m a freak…)

  1. I’m somewhat scandalised by this level of ignorance… speaking anything else besides English makes someone ‘un-American’?
    I bet, what’s behind this, in that particular case, is someone who has not bothered to teach their children, or who has not made much effort to learn themselves, and who regrets this now/feels inferior, so they compensate by trying to make others feel bad about it.

    • I don’t even know that it’s something on the level of regrets. It’s… sad is what it is.

      I didn’t say it, but I do wonder what this woman would have thought to have been in the quiet room at the shul over Yom Kippur yesterday, where in the space of an hour, I heard parents speaking Spanish and Russian to their children…

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