So I read an interesting article on bilingualism and found out a couple of things.
1. It’s important for the child to learn to distinguish between the two languages.
Rafi speaks exclusively Hebrew in gan and in the community, but I’ve been guilty of speaking “salad” at home. (When you mix two languages, you get a mixed salad.) Now I make a conscious choice about what language I’m using. For example, yesterday Rafi told me about a game they played in gan, and although he was speaking English, he used the Hebrew word for dwarfs. When I answered him, I substituted the English word. He got the hint and did too.
2. Age 3 is approximately the dividing line for acquiring two languages simultaneously vs. sequentially.
This makes sense. We know another American family who made aliyah at about the same time we did (just a couple of months earlier), but their daughter is about 9 months younger than Rafi. They made aliyah when she was just over age two. After six months, she was already refusing to answer her parents in English because the gap between her skills in both languages was relatively small. She was learning both languages at the same time.
Rafi, in contrast, knew from the beginning that he could understand and express complicated thoughts in English but not in Hebrew. Sure, his English grammar isn’t perfect (“Did you had an apple?”) but there’s still a huge gap between English and Hebrew for him. He definitely learned English first before starting on Hebrew. Now that I think about it, this informs on point #1 above. The likelihood of mixing up two languages is greater when a child is learning them both at the same time. Rafi mostly knows which words are English and which are Hebrew because he learned English first.
3. You have to decide what your goals are. Does bilingualism mean understanding both languages but speaking one? Speaking both? Reading and writing in both languages or only one?
Jewish day schools do a good job of teaching students to understand basic Hebrew, spoken and written, by upper elementary (which is as far as it goes if we live in Tulsa). I think it’s a realistic goal for Rafi to be able to understand the Tanakh, the siddur, and basic conversation.
However, is it a realistic goal for Rafi to be able to speak Hebrew easily? Depending on where we live, he may or may not have that much practice–even at a Jewish school. If he’s in preschool for another year, it will be two full years before he receives serious instruction in Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and by then he’ll be back to square one. I can see the future clear as day: Without special attention from Hebrew-speaking teachers, Rafi will not be able to speak Hebrew. He’ll have to relearn it in school starting two or three years from now. In a best-case scenario, I envision sitting down at the beginning of the year with an administrator and a teacher and working out a plan. But depending on where we live, I might be totally left on my own with this project.
I’d need to make the time commitment to actually plan out goals and lessons instead of trying to speak in Hebrew for a bit and then forgetting about it. I’d have to clearly lay out goals for him and write lesson plans instead of winging it. I’d have to barter with or pay someone who speaks Hebrew to spend time with Rafi. And as a backup, there’s always software like Rosetta Stone.
4. You have to stay in one place long enough for the second language to take hold.