Tonight was my first full Ulpan class (I had left last week’s lesson early to attend my first Bar Mitzvah). Trying to learn a new language is nerve-wracking, and learning Hebrew is certainly no exception. It’s when I struggle to learn the letters past Aleph, Bet, Gimel and Dalet that I know I’d have a much easier time conquering this language if my parents had given me a Jewish education. I don’t think I’d be fluent–I took ten years of both Latin and Spanish and am not fluent in those languages–but odds are, I’d be in a better place.

There are times when I am trying to think of a word to tell my students and the only language that pops into my head is Spanish. I can’t speak for the rest of Israel, but knowing Spanish in Netanya is essentially useless. The only time it comes in handy is when I speak to my Uruguayan friend, Lesly, who lives on my street. My knowledge of French has helped at a home goods store I go to sometimes since the cashier speaks French and some of the restaurants have French on their menus since there are quite a few French immigrants in Netanya.

The only reasons I can even understand Spanish and Latin are due to taking Latin for so long. I remember thinking how pointless Latin was at first because I had no plans to be in fields where I’d need it (medicine or law), but as I’ve gotten older and have tried to become more cultured with other languages, I see how useful Latin is. Of course, I wish my Latin had come back when I was being graded on it. Knowing Latin is the only reason I received a passing score on the GRE last year as a prefix or a suffix of a word can help with guessing its definition.

As great as Latin is for the romance languages, it’s done nothing for Hebrew. The only way I have been able to speak Hebrew reasonably effectively is when a word is written out phonetically in English. I have a workbook that lists various words that would be helpful with my students (school supplies, commands, etc.) and I have most of the three pages memorized. I also find that speaking to my students is the best way to pick up Hebrew. My students’ English is better than my Hebrew but we can bounce our mother tongues off of each other. I help them and they help me. They praise me when I learn a new word, just as I praise them.

Struggling to learn Hebrew has, at least, shown me how to be patient with my students when they have trouble learning English. I never get frustrated with them as I am going through the same issues. Working with my students also forces me to look at the English education I have received over the years. I always loved reading novels and poetry and I look up new words when I don’t understand them. I took Honors English in college and I can only hope that my English professor is proud of me for trying to teach his grammar lessons to children across the world. I hope I can make my students as passionate about English as my professor did for me.

Even though learning Hebrew is hard, I still pick up bits and bits from Ulpan. I can recognize four Hebrew letters now (Aleph, Bet, Gimel and Dalet), which is more than I knew when I moved here. One of the words we learned tonight was yeled (child) and as I was walking along the Promenade to go back to my apartment, I overheard a woman yelling “Yeled!” and then saw her yelling it to a child. Thanks to Ulpan, I knew what she was saying. Moments like that give me confidence that I can conquer this language, as difficult as it may be.

I have to admire the Israelis here who can speak not just two, but three or four languages. Earlier this year, I was invited to a breakfast in Cambridge, MA with the Argov Fellows. I looked at their profiles online and read that many of the Fellows were multilingual. To be able to do that when Hebrew uses such a different alphabet, in addition to being read from right to left, is remarkable. I definitely wish that America put more importance on learning another language. I always think of this joke that my friend, Jamie told me once:

What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual.

What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.

What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

I know there are Americans who are multilingual–including some of my Fellows–but there just isn’t the push to learn another language in America like I have seen in Israel. Israel begged me to move here. I cannot recall hearing about any type of program in the US where native speakers of other languages are recruited to come to the States to teach. I sometimes see “second language a plus” written in job postings for babysitting or nanny applications on the websites I belong to when I’m in the US, but that’s really the only time I ever see something like that. I don’t think Israelis–or people from other countries around the world–learn English to be showoffs; they learn it because Americans aren’t taught their languages. But then again, when the only thing children are taught these days is how to take a test thanks to the horrendous bill known as No Child Left Behind or are having to take remedial reading and writing classes in college because they’ve grown up texting and typing abbreviations all their lives, is it any wonder that American children don’t know any other language?

I don’t know what the answer to this problem is. All I do know, and a good writer has to write what she knows, is that teaching my mother tongue to Israeli children is both a challenge and a privilege. I thank my lucky stars that I get to share my passion of English with these children who gobble it up. I know that they, my Fellows, my madrichim and my Ulpan classes will help improve my Hebrew,even if it takes a while.

I have only been teaching English to my students for just over two weeks now, but I would definitely do it again if I had the chance. Except, this time, I’ll be going to a country where I can at least read the signs and not make the mistake that some of my Fellows have made of buying lemon salt instead of plain salt!


*October 9th, 2013* From my website, This is from last week’s Ulpan class. You have to start with the basics!