When administering educational evaluations, it is axiomatic that the testing be done in the child’s ‘first language’ so he or she need not silently translate the question before answering. Testing a child is his or her ‘second language’ often skews the results, as incorrect answers on the part of the child may be attributed to the added burden of converting the question from the less familiar language to the primary one.
To satisfy my curiosity, I once posed a question to a friend of mine who is a credentialed educational evaluator. “What do you do,” I asked, “when you have a bi-lingual child and you are not sure which of the child’s languages the primary one is?”
“Oh, that’s simple,” he responded. “I just place a number of coins on the table and ask the child to count them. Invariably, he or she will count them in his/her native tongue and that is the language that I use for the testing.”
With that in mind, I would like to suggest the following exercise for those who are fortunate to have Holocaust-surviving grandparents of Hungarian/Romanian background: Place several pictures of your children on the table and ask them to start counting. In all likelihood, you will hear, “Egy, Kettö, Három” (pronounced “et, ket, harom” – the numbers, “one, two, and three” in Hungarian) as that is the language they think in. For even sixty years after they left Europe, many of them still revert to their native Hungarian when thinking or while speaking to their peers. If you need further proof that this is so, take a trip to Miami Beach this winter and listen to the dialogue between the members of the ‘Greatest Generation’ one evening on the boardwalk.
The indisputable fact that virtually all fervently observant Jews in Hungary/Rumania were fluent in their native language is an important one to reflect upon. Why? Because it counters the revisionist history that developing English language skills in our children is somehow charting a ‘new’ path that deviates from our mesorah (tradition). In fact, throughout the centuries, even in times when the general population was mostly illiterate, Jews were known as the ‘people of the book’ who placed a great value on educating our children not only in Hebrew reading and writing, but also in the language of the lands in which we lived. The Rambam wrote in Arabic, and Rashi continuously referenced Old French in his commentaries, as those were the languages spoken at that time. What more proof is needed that Jews in France were fluent in the local language than the fact that Rashi repeatedly translated difficult words from Hebrew to French?
What is most unsettling, is that having a command of the native language is more crucial in today’s job market than it has ever been in history. Our grandparents in Europe, who did speak the local language, ironically did not need to draw upon those skills for their daily bread, as they mostly toiled in manual-labor positions or traded with other Jews, where Yiddish was the common vernacular.
Even in America a few decades ago, a solid general studies education was not as critical as it is nowadays. When my parents got married, jobs that did not require schooling or enhanced language skills, such as working in the diamond line, were readily available and provided sufficient income for a growing family. Due to outsourcing and the volatile job market created by the economic downturn, that is just not the case today.
It is certainly reasonable for one to make the case that due to the rapidly eroding moral culture in the world around us, it is necessary and prudent to safeguard our children from its negative effects. But it is one thing to shield your children from the Internet or television, and entirely another to raise them lacking the rudimentary skills to earn a living. Many point to individuals who became fabulously wealthy without a command of their native language. But they are just that. Individuals. The brutal reality is that most people who are poorly educated struggle mightily to earn a living and support their families – and this applies even or especially to those who plan on entering chinuch or rabbonus. Expecting to strike it rich with limited education is analogous to a 15-year-old dribbling a basketball and dreaming of playing in the National Basketball Association. A few make it while the others. . .well, . . . they don’t.
A close friend of mine owns a business in an area with a large charedi population and is always looking to provide avrechim with jobs. His ‘entrance exam’ is rather simple. He gives prospective applicants a pad and paper and asks them to write two paragraphs in English expressing the reasons they would like to land a job in his company, and then to turn on a computer and type those lines. His thinking is that if an applicant cannot perform those two tasks, they are useless to him in his business. Suffice it to say that this would probably be my last column in Mishpacha if I shared with you the percentage of applicants he turns away because they cannot do that.
In more than twenty-five years of dealing with at-risk teens I have not noticed a lower drop-out rate among kids who are raised in more sheltered environments. In fact, my experience leads me to support the observation made by my colleague Reb Yonasan Rosenblum, in a number of columns in these pages over the past few years, that out-of-town children have a lower drop-out rate than those who are raised in very sheltered communities.
What is indisputably a colossal risk factor, for marital discord and kids abandoning Yiddishkeit, is poverty. With that in mind, it is my strong and growing feeling, that not educating your children nowadays, and overly sheltering them from acquiring basic general studies skills, dramatically raises the risk factor that your grandchildren will be raised in stressful, unhappy homes – and more vulnerable to all the negative influences we wish to shield them from.
The Plan – An Open Letter To Yeshiva Bochurim
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