Fathering In The Mother Tongue

After speaking only Hebrew to his daughter for three years, Noam Scheiber explains why he decided to stop trying “to mold her in the Israeliness that shaped me as a kid”:

[T]he older my daughter got, the less plausible the whole routine felt. Last fall, she started going to pre-school five days a week. Like any parent, I was keen to know what she’d been up to all day. We’d turn out the lights at bedtime and lie on her bed, and I’d pump her for information. In English, my natural sensibility is patient and understated. My style in Hebrew was hectoring and prosecutorial. At some point it occurred to me that I was mimicking an Israeli. It also occurred to me that I was getting nowhere—my daughter was clamming up.

One night a few months ago, I finally switched languages. The effect was magical. I hear my daughter speak English all the time and still I was shocked by her verbiage. She would riff about what she’d done at the playground and what she’d concocted in art class. As is her wont, she would also tell me who’d bitten whom that day, and who’d broken down in tears. Part of it, surely, was that she is much more fluent in English.

But that couldn’t have been the whole story. After all, she would answer me in English even when I spoke to her in Hebrew. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that, just as I felt more myself in English, I felt to my daughter more like her father.