Monday, May 5, 2014

Adventures in Hebrew

I didn't learn the Hebrew alphabet through the nice little song, but a plain chart, when I was seven years old.
My Hebrew School teacher would point her stick at each letter on her big poster and we would dutifully recite them after her. To this day the only way I can recite the alphabet is in a rushed list—"alef, bet, vet, gimel, daled…" including all the sofits and soft letters. But I followed along in the siddur in shul when I was a kid while my mom led services as the cantor, and every Thursday evening we would sit down and read a children's book in Hebrew, my mom translating every few lines of Eloise or The Giving Tree after I laboriously stumbled through the letters.

I didn't start actually learning what the words meant until 9th grade, when I started an after school program in Hebrew.  Sure, I had learned scattered words from Jewish summer camp. Words like cheder ochel (dining room) and chugim (electives). But even when studying for my bat mitzvah we focused on learning the torah and half-torah trope, those extra symbols and tunes, and learning my portion.

In my after school program I didn't exactly give 100% effort…it was once a week after school for four solid hours, and then Sunday mornings. Neither were the best of times. I threw a fit my first year that I had to go, despairing of ever having time to get all my homework done, hang out with friends, and go to Hebrew School. In the end, it was a great experience, resulting in some good friends I am still in touch with, and I even somehow managed to learn some Hebrew and Tanach in those four years.

By the time I arrived in Israel this past September, I hadn't studied Hebrew in four years. The diagnostic test I was asked to complete before arriving was pathetic, with most of my answers in English. When my program started our month-long intensive ulpan (3.5 hours a day) I was placed in the beginning class. However, as we learned the verbs "rotzah" (to want) and nouns like "eesh" (man) I quickly realized that was not going to be useful to me. I switched up to the lowest intermediate level, and found my groove. Somehow I went from not being able to say more than my one trademark sentence "ayfo hashirutim?" (Where's the bathroom?) to whole conversations and sentences! Once I started my internship full time we stopped ulpan,  but my Hebrew continues to improve because I am so immersed in it every day.

Everyone in my office speaks Hebrew, my computer desktop is in Hebrew, all the inter-office emails I get are in Hebrew. Our Facebook page is mostly in Hebrew, and I even manage our Hebrew-language Twitter account. The standard morning tradition, I soon discovered, is chatting over an instant coffee for 10-30 minutes first thing in the morning with my coworkers. In Hebrew. Lunch discussions are in Hebrew, work meetings are in Hebrew...I could go on.

This is a great way to immerse myself in Hebrew, and my comprehension has infinitely improved. However, it is also quite challenging because my Hebrew is nowhere near a level where I can say what I want to say, and understand everything I hear.

In simple conversations where people aren't speaking too fast, it's on a subject I happen to know something about, and I concentrate very hard with minimal distractions, I can understand the gist of what is going on. Without these specific factors, or if the conversation features a key vocab word I don't know, I am totally lost. My coworkers are used to the blank and slightly panicky expression they are faced with when they casually aim some rapid-fire Hebrew at me.

But I am improving. I can hold basic conversations, depending on the subject, when I really need to, and when I have the energy. I can tell you one thing for sure, trying to learn Hebrew has definitely made me appreciate my French, which I've studied for 9 years much more intensively than Hebrew, and which I majored in at University. Of course, I also lived in France for a year, which improved my French exponentially. But when I was 13 and just starting French I couldn't imagine speaking it like I do now. I'll take that as an inspiration that maybe someday I'll say the same thing about Hebrew.

I do have some funny stories from my early attempts to speak Hebrew…

For example, when I was introducing myself to my coworkers on my first day at the office I tried to say I was excited, but instead said I was getting married (they sound similar in Hebrew, ok??) My coworker congratulated me and I thanked her with a huge grin, slightly confused. Another colleague who saw this drama unfold and understood the miscommunication enlightened my coworker before she bought me a wedding present. They got their revenge on April Fool's Day, when they convinced me another coworker was getting married (I didn't know Israelis celebrate April Fool's!). But the joke was on them because she got engaged just a few weeks later! But back to embarrassing stories about me...

On another occasion, while exploring the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv with a colleague after a work meeting, I accidentally told her I am a taxi. Let me tell you, she got a laugh out of that one.

Luckily my stories are quite benign, but I've heard of some that are much more cringe-worthy (and hilarious of course). For example, my flat mate was trying to tell her colleague that she loves strawberries…but she used the wrong gender ending for the plural. Instead of tutim she said tutot. The first means strawberries… the second is a slang word not to be confused with a cat.

In the meantime I am struggling along with my Hebrew, generally only speaking it when absolutely necessary, i.e. confronted with an unfamiliar Hebrew speaker on the phone or in person, for work, or on the bus, in restaurants…

But 8 months in, I can definitely feel the improvement.

Hebrew really isn't the hardest language to learn, especially compared to the complications of French grammar. There's no conditional tense, no subjunctive, no compound tenses and only one form of past tense (phew!). Basically, Hebrew grammar is very orderly and simple once you know the verb families. I am just seriously lacking in vocabulary, which is completely my own fault.

Like I said…it's a work in progress.

Do you have any funny stories about your adventures learning Hebrew? Any particularly frustrating moments? Let me know in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. One time I went to get my hair cut. I tried to say " I already washed it" but what came out was " I already killed it!" (they are almost the same!)

    I can relate to the silly mistakes we all do with Hebrew! But I love the language and how the words are all based on the roots. If you know one root you can figure out alot of the meaning, especially in writing. My friends used to laugh at me when I lived in Israel because I was always saying " Hebrew is so beautiful!"