Befriending Language: Rachel Seelig’s thoughts on raising a multilingual child

Rachel Seelig and her sons.

Without much forethought, I found myself raising a multilingual family. My partner, who hails from a tiny Bavarian town, speaks German with our two children, while I speak Hebrew. Since we live in Toronto, English is a given. Our fantasy of trilingual children hasn’t quite unfolded as imagined, however.

The toddler grunts while pursing his chubby fingers to sign for more food. The older one is more verbal, but he speaks a peculiar pidgin that invites very few interlocutors. Here’s an example. At preschool drop-off one morning my son was eager to tell his teacher about making egg salad with my father. “How do you say Saba in English?” he asked me under his breath. “Grandpa,” I whispered, as he turned to his teacher and proudly announced, “My grandpa is kaufen viele beytsim to make Eiersalat!” The teacher gave him a smile and nod before throwing me a pleading glance.

My child’s unique speech pattern is very sweet and funny, often perplexing, and occasionally concerning. “Will his new teacher understand him?” I lay awake wondering the night before his first day of kindergarten. “Will he have trouble making friends?” And then, “Have we made a terrible mistake?”

 Fortunately, a universal appreciation for Spider-Man’s web-slinging moves put my son at ease among his peers, and his new teacher didn’t bat an eye when he informed her that his “pancake falled on the Boden” earlier that morning. Suddenly I began to notice all the other languages being spoken at drop-off: French, Spanish, Urdu, Mandarin. Evidently, my multilingual child was in good company.

 As I watched him line up with his schoolmates one September morning all clad in orange, I had goosebumps thinking of the countless Indigenous children who were forced to repress their language while confined far from their homes in our country’s residential schools. How fortunate we are to accompany our children to school every morning and pick them up every afternoon, speaking any language we choose.  

So what had I been so worried about? I now realize that I had been trying to impart to my child a broad multilingual worldview while judging him based on narrow monolingual expectations. Of course, these expectations aren’t easily shed; they are central to our modern concept of identity. The idea of a powerful connection to a single language emerged in the 18th century alongside a more emotional understanding of the bond between mother and child. New notions of linguistic and familial fidelity contributed in turn to the growing devotion to a single nation – the marriage of fatherland and mother tongue.

As a scholar of modern Jewish literature, I look at languages through a particular lens. The writers I study came of age in fin de siècle Europe, as declining multiethnic empires were replaced by monolingual nation-states. These writers felt at home in multiple languages. Leah Goldberg, for instance, was raised in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) with German, Russian, and Yiddish, but began writing in Hebrew at a young age. Her Hebrew poems and children’s books are still read in Israeli homes and schools today. But Goldberg never turned her back on the other languages of her youth. She was prolific not only as a writer but also as a translator who introduced Hebrew readers to the works of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Rilke, and others.

Among Goldberg’s dearest friends was the poet Tuvia Ruebner, a native of Slovakia who at age 17 arrived an orphaned refugee on a kibbutz in northern Israel. Ruebner not only wrote in both German and Hebrew but also translated between them, in both directions: S.Y. Agnon from Hebrew into German, Goethe and Schiller from German into Hebrew. He also translated his own poetry from Hebrew into German, an act of self-translation that doubled as a kind of homecoming. After all, German was the language he spoke with his family, all of whom perished in the Holocaust, whereas Hebrew, his adopted language, remained “a foreign tongue flailing about.”

Both Goldberg and Ruebner understood intuitively that all communication is an act of translation, a “carrying over” (übertragen, as the Germans call it) from one place, culture, or person to another. Their work reveals the role of translation as dialogue and the beauty of imperfect expression, which seeks not to seduce nor subjugate but to inspire patience and attentiveness. As Ruebner once remarked: “Why must one master language? Why can’t one simply befriend language?”

My son has internalized the value of translation to such an extent that he often repeats to one parent whatever he has just told the other, even when we are all seated together at the dinner table. He seems to believe my partner and I were unable to communicate with each other before he came along. It’s exhausting, especially since his muddled expression is usually as incomprehensible the second time as it was the first. But perhaps I need to be more patient. My son’s inclination to mediate (even between his own parents!) is something to embrace.

Developmental psychologists typically highlight the cognitive benefits of acquiring a second language in childhood. This is hardly surprising, considering our culture’s obsession with milestones, scores, and benchmarks. Yet a recent study from the University of Chicago focused instead on the social benefits by showing the unique ability of multilingual children to take on another person’s perspective. In other words, multilingualism breeds empathy. Indeed, languages are not simply tools to increase one’s power in a world that fetishizes achievement; they are repositories of thought and feeling that reveal the vast spectrum of human experience.

I have no idea how or when my son’s trilingual pidgin will sort itself. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. I see signs that English is becoming dominant, but I’m confident that German and Hebrew will remain in his ear. More importantly, I believe he will be a living link between two languages that history has violently separated. Will he master these languages? Perhaps. He has already befriended them. 

Rachel Seelig, PhD is a scholar of modern Jewish literature who has held fellowships and teaching appointments at University of Toronto, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, University of Michigan, Columbia and Harvard. She lives in Toronto with her partner and two young children.