Friday, July 25, 2014

Please Leave Me A Note: About The Language Of Personal Notes

My husband  Tzvi and I were the kind of people who left notes to each other, they were short, often functional, but full with attention and love. By the time our first daughter was born, we have been writing notes for almost 8 years.

 At that time we lived in the US but, of course, we always corresponded in Hebrew. I never thought about the complex meaning of English versus Hebrew until it was time to read to my daughter. I knew that she would learn  English in pre-school, so we decided  to read to her mostly in Hebrew.

But then I started to think about the language of her future notes. As personal notes are such an intimate form of communication, I felt that it was crucial for my daughters (first the one and soon after the two) to be able to write them in Hebrew. 

Thus I decided to teach my daughters to read and write in Hebrew. I explained to them my rationale, and they agreed to make an effort. We created our own Hebrew school and every Sunday we wrote letters to my parents, and invented  stories that the girls wrote in their note books.

Although Tzvi and I spoke Hebrew at home, there was a period when my daughters spoke English to one another. I used to hear them play school with their stuffed animals giving them instructions in English. I didn’t say anything, but was worried about the future of those personal notes. 

Then we spent a Sabbatical year in Israel and once we had moved  back to the US, I noticed that the girls naturally shifted  back Hebrew.

Around us there were many Israeli friends who spoke English with their children. The strong Hebrew accent in English is very noticeable for me, and  I  always felt sorry for them. Somehow it seemed that this choice of  language reflected something about the relationship between parents and children and weakened the position of  the parent in the new country.

I had some frame of reference, from the beginning of the 20th century Israel has always been  an immigrant society. Often when new immigrants arrived to Israel they knew very little Hebrew. Their  children normally became fluent in the language much faster than their parents and grandparents. A friend of mine told me that when she was 11 in the late 1960s she used to accompany her grandmother everywhere, especially to places like the local  hospital and different government offices. She was the interpreter for her grandmother who knew no Hebrew. This is a typical story, those children who became the mouth piece for the whole family  were put in an awkward position. On the one hand, they gained a special status in the family because of their responsible role.On the other hand, this reversal of roles, in which the child is the ambassador to  the outside world, was also a source  of confusion for everybody within that family
Our Israeli friends in the US were young professionals whose English was good enough and they didn’t need an interpreter.  But still they lived in a foreign country where their children had a better mastery of the English language.  I felt that speaking to my daughters in my native tongue was  a better way to preserve the traditional roles in our family.

And as for the personal notes, my daughters, who spent most of their life in the US,  prefer to read and write in English. But whenever I come home to find a note from one of my daughters,  it is always written in Hebrew.

This  makes me especially happy.


  1. I don't think there is any danger in Hebrew becoming an extinct language since it is commonly spoken and an ecclesiastic/religious language. There are Native American languages with only a few speakers -- less than a dozen -- that will become extinct in my lifetime. I wonder about languages in Europe. Will there be any Walloon speakers in 100 years? Some of my ancestors spoke Kashubian but that language is now mostly replaced by Polish (and spell check never heard of it). English is so commonly spoken in Europe that I wonder what the future will be...if other languages will become a cultural novelty. Modern forms of European languages were created accidentally by writers...Luther, Cervantes, Dante and Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Euro-English is being driven more by technology.

    1. Thank you for writing dear Ken., You are right Hebrew is a language which keeps evolving. It was revived 100 years ago by Eliezer Ben Yehuda.
      It is quite amazing how even in Europe, English is so much more popular than French, Spanish and German.