Teach me English," my grandmother said to me. "You are smart, you love school, be my teacher." I was visiting her, probably on a Friday after school, having walked the three blocks from my Bronx apartment house to hers. And I would be sleeping over in the roomy sofa bed in the living room, safely under a pile of quilts and a big cushion on my feet. At night my grandmother tucked me in and sang me Yiddish lullabies. But in the late afternoon, in the kitchen preparing the soup and chicken she would serve later to my grandfather and me, she wanted to learn English, and I was her chosen teacher. I suppose I could hardly have known then that her simple request would be the beginning of my vocation as an English as a Second Language teacher and my lifelong fascination with language and literature. But I know I began her lessons with the alphabet, although we must have gotten to some grammar, too, because my grandmother was always mispronouncing "yesterday." Replacing the "y" with a "g" and being corrected by me, she would say, in Yiddish, with a great sigh, that she had forgotten what I had taught her last week, and that she was very stupid. This was in the privacy of her white-tiled kitchen, as she washed pots at the sink and checked on whatever was bubbling on the stove, to her favorite grandchild, who was perhaps 8 or 9 years old at the time. I remember thinking that it was sad that she thought she was stupid, and knowing that she wasn’t. Because how could she have come all by herself across an ocean, at the bottom of a very big ship, found her husband my grandfather at Ellis Island, and ultimately taken care of him and their three daughters if she were not a really smart person indeed? Also, she could understand what was being said in Yiddish on the radio on the top of her icebox always tuned to her beloved WEVD and I certainly could not!
When she spoke to me she used a mixture of Yiddish and English. I responded only in English, but she seemed to understand everything I said. I guessed a lot, too, piecing together the meaning from her despair when she said "forgessen" because she had again substituted the "g" for the initial "y" in "yesterday." If she could not read or write in English (and now I realize probably not in Polish or Yiddish either), how was she able to take the subway down to the Lower East Side after she moved from there to the Bronx? My mother was not sure if my grandmother could read beyond the A or the D marked on the front of the subway car, let alone the Mount Eden sign at her subway stop. But my grandmother said she was not afraid, and that she could always ask someone if she got lost. I don’t remember hearing that she ever got lost. We took the bus together to go shopping locally and then later the D train downtown to the Radio City Music Hall, where she loved the live shows that accompanied the feature movie. After my grandfather died she often went to a matinee there by herself. Even when I was a little girl she struck me as a strong and independent person.
My own mother spoke no English until she went to kindergarten, and then began her dual life today we might say bilingual life in earnest, going from one language to the other as she traced her steps to and from school. Did she speak to her younger sisters in English when she got home? I find it hard to imagine and now it is too late to ask, but maybe she delighted in being able to communicate in such different ways with her parents and siblings. Maybe my fascination with words and languages was also something she passed on to me. And maybe my grandmother was too busy struggling with babies and household chores to ask her eldest daughter to teach her English.
She waited an awfully long time till she could ask me, and by then it was too late. We spent many afternoons and evenings together and she lavished food and love on me, but I never really taught her much English. I listened to and puzzled over the Yiddish I heard from her conversations with my mother and my aunts, eavesdropping when I wasn’t supposed to, and I learned a little bit of Yiddish myself. I could tell when they were talking about me, I could tell when somebody was pregnant, but I didn’t make much more progress at it than my grandmother did in her language lessons. She couldn’t learn enough English, despite her great desire, because she was too old and probably illiterate. And I couldn’t learn enough Yiddish because my desire was not great enough, and nobody really wanted me to learn it. Not when I was a little girl, growing up in the Bronx in the ’40s and ’50s. So many years later, when my mother was a grandmother herself, she sadly realized how limited my Yiddish was. It was then that she really wished I had learned enough to talk to her in the language of her own childhood, now that her beloved mother was gone.
My mother loved the Yiddish theater all her life and was always delighted that she could understand everything without the aid of supertitles. Busy working and raising my own child, I never accompanied her to those shows and my so first experience with the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater came only recently when I was asked to join a local Yiddish class trip. I was amazed to find that, although I certainly needed the translations running above the stage, I could understand not only the gist of the story, but the innuendoes and even the plays on words. It helped enormously that the acting was so wonderful and the comedy parts so broadly played. I recognized the characters and their plights high family drama familiar to me from my childhood exposure to a lively and argumentative group of Yiddish-speaking relatives who were always telling stories to and about each other.
As soon as I retired from full-time teaching, I joined a class of other adults like myself, studying Yiddish late in life. When our delightful teacher asked us why we chose the class, I found myself agreeing with the other students that it was not so much what we learn as what we think about and feel when she tells us an anecdote or reads a story aloud. All of us envy the teacher’s ease in moving back and forth between Yiddish and English. I marvel at how much I understand of words that I have not heard in decades, and am amazed that they still have meaning for me. And then I feel such a connection to the people who spoke to me in those words that it is almost as if they are in the classroom with me.
My reactions are not unique; my classmates also say that a sense of delight envelops them as well when they hear Yiddish spoken.
Continuing the English lessons I started so long ago with my grandmother, I remind my ESL students that they are fortunate to be bilingual, and that their dual-language skills will help them not only vocationally but in their daily lives and in their ability to express themselves and to understand two different cultures. I hope by encouraging them to compensate in some small measure for the very challenging and seemingly endless task of acquiring a difficult new language.
When my mother was a young immigrant student in an American classroom, most recently arrived families were eager to shed all remnants of their past lives. They did not value their native language enough to want their future grandchildren to learn it. Instead, they wanted us to be educated American children who could grow up and make choices denied to them and their ancestors, and for that we needed the English language as our passports.
Attitudes about language and culture have changed as much as the newly arriving immigrants have in the past 50 years. As a teacher I have learned a great deal from my students about their lives, both before and after they came to this country, and I have even picked up some snippets of their languages as I listened to them chatter to each other. Some years a class might consist of several Spanish speakers, for example, and although I admonish them about speaking only English in the ESL classroom, they often lapse into their native language when they feel the need.
I knew enough basic Spanish to be able to impress an ingenuous girl one day, so that the next time her friend began to speak to her in Spanish, she hissed back, "Shut up!" Turning her head to indicate that she meant me, she added, "She understands everything!" Allowing myself a satisfied little smile, I continued the lesson, in English, uninterrupted. But I had to acknowledge, at least to myself, that, much like my students, I certainly did not understand everything, and that we were all studying together.