It’s Pi Day, so here’s something to chew on.
Most parents aren’t prepared to teach their children a first language, let alone a second one. They just talk to their babies who, being babies, soak it all up, and before you know it they’ve figured out how to make themselves understood around the house. The next time languages come up, the kids are turning twelve and on their way to junior high. I believe this is the real reason so many Sephardim of my generation never learned to speak Ladino.
As small children, my siblings, cousins and I already knew we belonged to something very special. Even so, we were kept a little bit apart from our culture, observers as much as willing participants in our living heritage. We learned to cook. (Delicious!). We learned our family history. (Fascinating!). We learned traditional melodies. (Beautiful!). But when it came to their utterly charming language, most bets were off. Though we may have heard it every day, my elders more often spoke at us in Ladino (typically to shower us with endearments) than with us. Nor with my dad, who they adored ( in case you’re wondering), and he had even taken up Spanish when he was dating my mom.
When I began studying Spanish in seventh grade, I often used to sit and read to my grandma to practice. She’d kvell in Ladino about my accent, addressing no one in particular. Then she’d revert to English to talk to me! I may have nailed that accent, but I never picked up much vocabulary.
How weird is that, and why did this seem so normal to them?
Every family’s heard all the usual excuses. Only one parent spoke it. The kids shouldn’t seem like immigrants. It was convenient to have a language the kids didn’t understand. It didn’t seem important then. Et cetera. Next thing you know, our beautiful language winds up on the verge of extinction.
Every one of those reasons has some truth to it, but I suspect a simpler one may be the real culprit: not everyone’s innately equipped to teach language, especially one you learned without thinking about how you learned it. Without that precedent or preparation, maybe they just didn’t know how to go about it, so they dropped the ball.
Now they can pick it up, and so can you.
At last there is a Ladino language book for children. Yes, one. Incredibly, the first Ladino instruction book for children has been published. Suddenly it seems so obvious, right? Also so astonishing nobody thought of it sooner.
Nono’s Kisses for Sephardic Children is the initiative of Flori Senor Rosenthal, a former New Yorker with roots in Salonika who, like so many children of half Sephardic descent, never forgot her love of the Ladino she heard as a child, nor her lifelong desire to learn it.
Designed bilingually (with English) so that non-Ladino speaking parents can learn along with their children age 4 to 9, the illustrated book introduces the Ladino alphabet, vocabulary, traditional phrases and elements of Ottoman Sephardic culture, reinforcing them with questions, answers and games.
Wow, right? How simple was that!
No matter your age, language is most meaningful when you’ve got someone to share it with. Just laying down a few basics is all it takes to get that ball rolling, and Senor Rosenthal has provided a framework. Suddenly the monumental-sounding task of “saving Ladino” isn’t daunting, it’s as easy as pie.
Teach your children, and your grandchildren. They’ll thank you. We’ll all thank you. This was so needed.