I have been in Israel for just under three weeks. In that time, the only words I can say in Hebrew are the Hebrew words for: good morning, good night, great, so-so, excellent, it’s OK, thank you, thank you very much, you’re welcome/please, my name is, teacher, bathroom, students, mother, father, pencil, pen, quiet, here, yes, no, you (masculine, feminine and plural), Hebrew, English, speak, sorry/excuse me, traffic, one moment, ice cream, ice, water and beach. I have spent the past two days in makeshift Ulpan lessons. Given my limited knowledge of Hebrew, I have no idea what my actual Ulpan lessons will be like.
I graduated college two years ago; I haven’t set foot in a classroom–besides the three rooms I will be teaching in–since then. Forcing myself to learn two separate alphabets is a challenge, to say the least. I can read Hebrew when it’s written out phonetically in English and once I have that down, my speaking gets better. I can’t read Hebrew at all. It’s times like this that I wish my parents had sent me to Hebrew school instead of a Christian one growing up (my mother is a Christian; my father is Jewish). The only language I remember learning from my Christian school was Latin. While Latin has helped me to read and speak a little bit of both Spanish and French–in addition to helping me understand “big” English words–Latin has done nothing in terms of helping me learn Hebrew. The last time I even used my knowledge of Latin was last year when I helped to translate my best friend from college’s diploma from Brown University as it was written in Latin!
Trying to learn a new language that is so different from my mother tongue is certainly a challenge. I looked into joining the Peace Corps a few years ago and one of my hopes was that I would end up in a Spanish-speaking country because I can understand Spanish and I know that Spanish speakers exist in the US. I don’t doubt that knowing Hebrew will be useful when I go back to the States, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t struggling. A few Fellows in my cohort can speak Hebrew very well and they have had to help us non-Hebrew speakers with things like following directions to get to buildings or helping us purchase Israeli SIM cards for our cell phones (thanks, Mhaya!) Hearing the words roll off their tongues pains me because I see in myself how detrimental it has been that I was not given a Jewish education. It’s in little things as well, like not knowing Shabbat songs or why certain Jewish holidays exist. I definitely feel inadequate.
I suppose the silver lining of struggling with learning a new language is that I am able to empathize with my students who are working to learn English. They are learning a new alphabet with different pronunciations and more letters in the alphabet. We have been able to bounce Hebrew and English off of each other. My students’ faces lit up when they heard me speaking to them in their mother tongue, just as my face lights up when they speak in mine. My students are nothing short of metzuyan (excellent) and I hope that in time my Hebrew will improve just as their English does. If they can do it, maybe I can do it, too.
Laila tov (good night)!