[lg policy] Hello or shalom? Half of Israeli kids grow up bilingua

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 22 16:47:48 EDT 2018

 Hello or shalom? Half of Israeli kids grow up bilingual Israel is possibly
the world’s best ‘lab’ for researching the little-understood phenomenon of
being raised with two or more spoken languages.
By Abigail Klein Leichman
<https://www.israel21c.org/writer/abigail-klein-leichman/> May 22, 2018,
8:16 am
Illustrative photo by Eiko Tsuchiya/Shutterstock.com

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“Anna,” a preschooler in the Israeli city of Bat Yam, was thought to be
cognitively impaired because testing her in Hebrew showed her cognitive
skills lagging behind her classmates. But when retested in her home
language, Russian, she was found to be normal.
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About half of all Israeli children speak a different language at home than
in school, making Israel possibly the world’s best “laboratory” for
researching the fascinating but still little-understood phenomenon of
growing up with two or more spoken languages.

One important Israeli discovery is that comparing bilingual kids like Anna
to monolingual children is like comparing apples to pears, says Bar-Ilan
University Prof. Sharon Armon-Lotem <https://faculty.biu.ac.il/~armonls/>.

For two decades, her lab has studied language-acquisition processes of
Israeli preschoolers from English-, Russian- and Amharic-speaking homes.

Roughly 20 percent of children entering first grade in Israeli secular
public schools come from immigrant homes in which the dominant language is
not Hebrew. The largest cohort is Russian-speakers, numbering about 1.2
million out of an overall Israeli population of 8.7 million.

Adding more than a million Israeli households where Arabic, Yiddish or
African languages are spoken, the percentage of bilingual children climbs
to as high as 50% of the general population, Armon-Lotem tells ISRAEL21c.
Prof. Sharon Armon-Lotem of Bar-Ilan University. Photo: courtesy

To evaluate bilingualism properly, one must understand that children who
grow up speaking two or more languages in everyday life are not using the
same brain processes as do monolingual children learning a second language
in school, say Armon-Lotem and other Israeli experts.

And if bilingual children like Anna initially have a smaller Hebrew
vocabulary, they have better syntax and concept-generation skills in both

Overall, they develop language no differently than monolingual peers –
unless they have Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), an area where
Israeli research is world renowned.

*What is normal?*

DLD, estimated to affect 5-7% of both monolingual and bilingual children,
causes dramatic delays in language acquisition not related to other
impairments. DLD might manifest differently in each of a child’s two
languages, but usually shows up as difficulty with word retrieval and

Since these same phenomena can happen in typically developing bilingual
children as they learn the majority language, bilingual children with and
without DLD are often misdiagnosed.

Armon-Lotem emphasizes that bilingualism does not lead to impairment.

>From 2009 to 2013, she led a network <http://bi-sli.org/> of researchers
from 26 European and five non-European countries in formulating standards
for characterizing typical bilingual development and identifying atypical
bilingual development in over 30 language pairs.

Research <https://doi.org/10.1111/1460-6984.12242> by Natalia Meir in
Armon-Lotem’s lab was the first to show that it is possible to disentangle
typical and impaired language development, and with 90% accuracy.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in this area in Israel,” says Prof. Joel
Walters, professor emeritus of linguistics at Bar-Ilan and now chair of the
department of communication disorders at Hadassah Academic College in
Jerusalem, which hosts hundreds of specialists at its annual conference on
communication disorders in multilingual and multicultural populations.
Researchers in bilingualism ata Hadassah Academic College conference
include Profs. Joel Walters, second from left, Sharon Armon-Lotem, third
from left, and Carmit Altman, fourth from right. Photo: courtesy


Walters’ study of the processes underlying how the brain merges two or more
languages into a single utterance is informed by recent brain imaging of

One of his focuses is “codeswitching” –when a bilingual speaker starts a
sentence or word in one language and switches to the other.

“Codeswitching was once thought of as a random phenomenon but actually it’s
very systematic and occurs in sentences, phrases, and even within words,”
Walters tells ISRAEL21c.

An English-Hebrew bilingual child might tell her sister “*muzi*,” merging
the English word “move” with the Hebrew “*zuzi.*”
Prof. Joel Walters of Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem. Photo: courtesy

Walters and two co-authors recently published in the *International Journal
of Bilingualism*
<http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1367006918763135>about their
study of Russian-Hebrew bilingual six-year-olds asked to retell a Russian
story to a Hebrew-speaking puppet, a Hebrew story to a Russian-speaking
puppet and a codeswitched story to a bilingual puppet.

The children were also asked to respond to conversational questions asked
in Russian, Hebrew and codeswitched speech about holidays and activities at
home and in preschool.

In both tasks, the children did more codeswitching from Russian to Hebrew,
“because that’s the language of school and street and that’s the language
that will help them integrate socially.” However, in children with impaired
language development the directionality is not as predictable, says Walters.

As Israeli researchers formulate better ways of evaluating and treating
bilingual children with DLD, Armon-Lotem is planning to establish a global
database of voice files sent from clinicians and preschool teachers who
work with bilingual children in different language pairs. Data scientists
at Bar-Ilan will use new methods in machine learning and big data to better
identify existing markers of DLD and possibly find new markers.

*Am I Russian or Israeli?*

Carmit Altman of Bar-Ilan’s School Counseling & Child Development Programs
studies the social impact of growing up bilingual, looking at family
language policy — what language parents want their child to speak and how
they enforce that preference.

One of her group’s frequently cited studies, published in 2014, examined
the language policy of 65 Israeli families raising their children in
Russian. They found three main approaches: parents with a strict policy of
speaking only Russian at home; parents who don’t forbid Hebrew at home and
sometimes encourage it; and those who actively promote both Hebrew and
Russian at home for speaking and reading.
Dr. Carmit Altman of the School Counseling & Child Development Programs,
School of Education, Bar Ilan University. Photo: courtesy

They predicted the strictest language policy would result in the best
performance in Russian but the middle group performed just as well.
Children from this group also showed an advantage in Hebrew in tasks
predictive of future Hebrew literacy skills. “In syntax, all the kids did
better in Hebrew than in Russian, with no group differences,” Altman tells

Her lab also studies how bilingual children and their parents perceive
their children’s language abilities, and their sociolinguistic identity and
preferences. They invented a “magic ladder” scale on which preschoolers can
attach happy and sad magnet faces to rate their agreement with statements
such as “I speak Hebrew well.”

Parents of both English-Hebrew and Russian-Hebrew bilingual children think
their children prefer Hebrew, but the kids say they prefer their home
language, Altman found. And while the kids consider themselves hyphenated
Israelis, their parents consider them totally Israeli.

There were differences in performance perception. “In Russian-Hebrew
families, both children and parents think the children perform similarly in
Russian and Hebrew. In English-Hebrew families, children feel they perform
better in English while parents think the children have similar abilities
in both languages,” says Altman.

In collaboration with Armon-Lotem, her group is developing tools to help
researchers understand these differences and to help preschool teachers
detect which bilingual children may need a DLD evaluation.

*Advantages of bilingualism*

The ability to speak more than one language is widely accepted as
beneficial in ways from the practical (business, academics, travel) to the
medical (possibly delaying symptoms of dementia).

When Altman was doing a post-doc in New York, she and her husband spoke
Hebrew to their children at home. She feels that raising kids bilingually
“is a gift you can give your child for life” and that cross-generational
communication is one strong motivation for doing so.

“Having more than one language and more than one culture is definitely a
huge advantage in life,” agrees Armon-Lotem.

It is less clear whether bilingualism sharpens “executive functions” such
as shifting attention and inhibiting instructions, as was believed in past

“In one study we found that English-Hebrew bilingual children with DLD show
an advantage in executive function over monolingual children with DLD,”
says Armon-Lotem. “But we didn’t find the same in Russian-Hebrew
bilinguals. We might be able to find cognitive advantages for certain
populations at certain age ranges and within certain tasks.”

She and her colleagues are beginning to study bilingualism in children with
autism and Down syndrome; and will provide tools to help bilingual
preschool children, including Eritrean asylum-seekers in Jerusalem, tell
coherent stories in Hebrew and their home language.

A conference on the scientific and societal contribution of research in
multicultural and multilingual communities is planned (in English) on June
4-6, 2018, to launch the Israeli branch of Bilingualism Matters at Bar-Ilan
University. For information, click here


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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