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‘I Hate It with Both My Eyes!’

The joy of raising dual-culture children, for us, is about passing down the best of both worlds. My husband is Jewish, so when the kids are of age they’ll start taking steps toward their bar and bat mitzvahs, a proper training in their Jewish heritage. We’ve certainly got Kashmiri food, holidays and attire on lock, but I do feel the failure of falling so far behind on the language front — I’m now wondering how to build our children a bridge to the language that I adore.

Normally the kids, ages 2 and 6, could spend a chunk of the summer with my parents, who would immerse them in it. But this summer isn’t exactly normal, so any cultural lessons are on pause. In the meantime, I’ve been watching closely, collecting scraps of evidence that an inherent love of words — any words, even if they’re not Kashmiri — will blossom in both of my children.

Between their parents’ being writers and the miracle of DNA, I seem to be in luck. “A spectacular baby!” our son called our daughter when he was 4. He tears through his chapter books, bursting into the room, bushy hair on end, to ask for definitions: Perplexed! Secretary! Brassiere! We give him most, and fumfer around others, especially when he gets into the newspaper. He does that thing that all voracious readers do, where he knows how to read a word, and what it means, but not how to pronounce it (“BRACE-ee-uhr!”). I remember being embarrassed by that, because it turns out “misled” is not pronounced MY-zuld, but eventually recognized it as a proud badge of bookworms everywhere. He notices my delight at his verbal curiosity, and plays around with it.

“I need to tell you something the baby does when you’re not around.” he said to me, solemn, when she was 1. “She makes up long words, and says them in a clear voice.”

He knew nothing would make me happier, or more frustrated. There’s the sharp, funny and specific that I love.

He also may have willed something into being, because the toddler isn’t far behind. She shows a strong preference for the more toothsome parts of the dictionary. The standard “Hi!” and “Dada” quickly gave way to octopus (“oppodippo!”), helicopter (“hakaliko!”), and jalapeño (“jalapeño”).

We watch her roll a new word around in her mouth, use it in a brief, take-charge sentence (“Oppodippo, sit, watch me eat oatmeal!”), and then practice it in her crib until she falls asleep. Her bravery in the face of consonant clusters will serve her well, if and when she picks up Kashmiri.

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