Our family lost Yiddish and Russian back in 1905 when great-grandma told her kids, upon arrival in Newark NJ, that they were Americans and must only speak English from then on.
Of course, she herself never did!
Yiddish - the Russian disappeared almost immediately - lasted for another complete generation of fluent speakers, and an additional generation of those who understood but could not speak. And then there was the third generation, who knew a handful of words, generally used in the right context. The fourth generation seems to know only those words connected to food or used in Jewish jokes.
I don't remember ever having a full conversation with Little or White Grandma (who was petite and had white hair, so as to distinguish her from the Big Grandma on the other side - whom I don't remember). Our words were always translated by some intermediary.
If you are in the same boat, or your children or grandchildren are showing an interest, here are two programs that might keep Yiddish alive in your family.
The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts is offering a seven-week Steiner Summer Internship Program (June 6-July 23, 2010). No prior Yiddish knowledge is required for the program which includes intensive Yiddish classes (three hours daily) for beginners and intermediates, studies in Yiddish culture and Eastern European history, distinguished international faculty, free tuition and credit for two undergraduate courses, research opportunities; field trips, workshops, performances, and more.
Full-time undergrad and grad students are encouraged to apply here by February 1, 2010.
And, if you have an academic year (September-June) to devote to keeping language alive, there is the Graduate Fellows Program, a full-time Yiddish academic year practicum. This one requires a basic knowledge of Yiddish, a BA in Jewish Studies/equivalent.
Those accepted will work on new and ongoing projects in: Yiddish bibliography, exhibitions, ethnography, oral history, education, website, publications and more; enjoy hands-on learning with the Book Center's senior staff; and receive $20,000 stipend for the nine-month program plus health insurance.
Click here to apply, with the deadline also February 1, 2010.
What about a similar program for Ladino?