Any language teacher, linguist or expert will agree that the best way to learn a language is immersion. Most people agree that a pretty good way, if not the best way to learn a language is that you go to the country and live there. But when going to the country isn’t an option, there’s always the next best thing; cultural immersion. This process is one of the reasons that Germans and Scandinavians speak such excellent English; not because of geographical closeness, rather the use of English language in daily life.
The internet, English-language shows with subtitles, English language used in video-games, Hollywood films, and of course English-language music are a part of the lives of many European children. They are bombarded subconsciously with vocabulary, new grammatical structures, complex native-sounding phrases, and they understand the British and American cultures quite intricately; this is because their immersion starts at a young age with Spongebob and Disney, and continues to the point that they can accumulate almost native-like proficiency in listening and comprehension. Speaking is dependent on the amount of youth immersion- the ages of 12 to 13 are the generally agreed cut-offs for acquiring a native accent, but proficiency in speaking and fluency do not have limits. Age is not an excuse.
For me, living in Italy wasn’t an option when I decided that I wanted to learn Italian. With that, I found Italian culture to be the next best thing and explored it in my own way. Subtitled films about the mafia, cheesy 90’s music and reading the translated lyrics, and eventually reading Italian books with a dictionary helped me along the road to fluency and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I didn’t just learn the language and learn to speak at a very confident level, but I understood the culture much better than someone forced to sit in class and trawl through grammar workbooks. Through learning independently using technology and media, I learnt the national in-jokes, the cultural details and the ‘personality’ of the language. The grammar and complex stuff came naturally, as the films and music gave me contexts where using subjunctives, gerunds, and other ‘hardcore linguistic stuff’ would feel normal to use.
When I fell in love with the Hebrew language 4 years ago, moving to Israel was not an option. I taught myself how to read by frustratedly staring at sites like Walla and Mako, trying to recognise certain common words that I knew like ‘eretz’ or ‘televiziya’ to work out the context and grinning delightedly when I did understand it. I read Israeli blogs, and eventually came to a point where I could, after a few months, read and write fluently even though I didn’t know 100% what I was saying. That is, until a friend wrote me ‘אני רוצה לימצוץ זיין גדול’ and I read it out loud to him resulting in his hysterical laughter; at that point I didn’t trust what was being written as much, and became less complacent.
And then came speaking. I tried out my old tactic of using music, and luckily for me my love for Hebrew extended to ‘mizrachi’ or ‘Eastern’ music as well. I googled the lyrics, and checked the words that I didn’t know with an online dictionary. They were stored in my head with the song. With each song that I figured out, 20 to 50 new words were added to my vocabulary. (Although with most mizrachi songs, the word ‘ahava’ or ‘love’ is roughly 50% of the lyrical content) After a year, I learnt around 2500 new words. After a year and a half, I could speak Hebrew very comfortably. Four years later I’m still learning hard.
Not only that, but with music I learnt about public icons and singers, slang phrases and through music, I improved my intonation, pronounciation of words and my closeness with the Hebrew language and Israeli culture. My drive to learn increased and my thirst for knowledge was enhanced, thanks to this ‘one weird trick’ that doesn’t need to be paid for, ordered, advertised on webpages or sent to your spam box.
These are things that you are still done best through living in the country because you don’t have the choice of escaping, turning off your computer and saying ‘screw it’ because you choose it. Yet at the same time, the internet provides immersive experiences that are accessible from anywhere in the world and available in any language. Music, film, radio and news sites provide portable immersion that is open for anybody willing to persevere and learn. The only difference is that you choose to immerse yourself. And it’s a fun hobby.
That said, one of my favourite Israeli singers is admittedly Eyal Golan. Yes, that guy you saw on ToI last month, accused of sleeping with a 15 year old girl. When he did get arrested, it felt like a familiar figure was jailed. Because to an extent, he taught me a lot of my Hebrew. I used his music as a means of teaching myself a language that is now a very important part of my life, so it was a bit like hearing that my Hebrew teacher was arrested. Although, I did think of one song of his; “yadat sheZeh Zmani”- “You knew it was temporary”- which made me laugh judging from the context.
אני רוצה שתהיי יפה, בדיוק לטעמי
עם ריח מתוק וחיוך אלוהי
רוצה שתדעי מה זה עצב וגעגועים
רוצה שתיכנסי לצרה קטנה
ואני אציל אותך ואת תכירי לי תודה.
אני לא מחפש ריגושים,
אבל צריך קצת עניין בחיים
ואם פתאום אקום ואלך
תגידי שאת לא כועסת
שידעת שזה זמני.
“I want you to be beautiful, exactly my taste,
Sweet smelling with a divine smile
I want you to know what sadness and longing means,
I want you to get into a little trouble
And I’ll save you and you’d thank me,
I’m not looking for thrills,
But I need meaning in my life,
If I suddenly get up and go,
Say that you’re not angry,
You knew it was temporary”
Learning a language through musical and visual means doesn’t allow you only to understand jokes, but you can make them too because you understand the sense of humour. It’s far more effortless than trawling through books, spending hours staring blankly into ‘grammar exercises’ and the like. It is also, quite clearly, more enjoyable.
Anyone who wants to learn Hebrew, give Eyal a call. And if you don’t like that kind of music, Israel offers Hebrew rap, metal, rock, reggae, there is no excuse… Now yalla, learn!