Here is an embarrassing thing to admit. My Hebrew is non-existent. My Arabic too. Oh, OK: I can speak and understand perhaps five words in Hebrew and three in Arabic, but beyond a tiny number of situations (e.g. saying “toda” to the guard at the JAIS school gate) I don’t even try to speak nor understand the spoken language. The written language is even more alien. I can’t identify, much less decode, the letters in either alphabet. Sometimes I can’t even tell where one letter ends and another begins. When mail arrives, I have to ask Terence whether it is addressed to us or our landlords.

Depending on the day, I have different feelings about this situation. Vulnerability, for one. We were assured: “Everyone speaks English in Israel!” But this turns out to be false, at least among some of the people with whom I most need to communicate (e.g. check out staff at the infamous Rami Levy). When there’s any kind of glitch in a transaction, I am bumbling and powerless. Another reaction is  defensiveness. “Learning Hebrew was not one of my goals for the year!” I’ll tell myself. I suppose that’s true, but how can I live in this city and not try to learn even a rudimentary sentence? I hate assuming (or praying) that my interlocutors will speak English. It contradicts my values. I’m also ashamed that Terence and Hannah speak way, way more Hebrew than I do. Terence and I started Rosetta Stone at the same time but he stuck with it, while I bailed just after learning non-useful phrases like: “that woman is running.” Perhaps it’s not fair to compare myself with Hannah, since she is such a language sponge.

Most of all, my lack of language makes me feel unlike myself. Normally I am a language geek, like Hannah. Close reading and analysis of words was basically all I did in college. When I took one of those “multiple intelligence” tests, my verbal/linguistic intelligence was more than all the other forms added together. Yet for some reason, I am unable to apply any of that focus to my situation right now. It feels pointless, like I’ll never master Hebrew or Arabic so why try? How pathetic is that to admit?

Instead I walk the streets here in a kind of trance, completely oblivious to what is being said around me. The front page of the newspaper holds no meaning. Filling out any form provokes terror.

I wonder if I get curious enough about Hebrew (or Arabic) to make some progress and break this sense of dazed paralysis.


About hilarymead

Taking two young kids, a great husband, and a whole lot of questions to Jerusalem for a year's sabbatical.
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3 Responses to Wordless

  1. Suzanne says:

    Just one word for you: ULPAN.

  2. “that woman is running.” nearly had me spitting water all over my keyboard. Too funny.

  3. launaschweizer says:

    As you may recall, I’ve done some thinking on this question. I took the same line as you did (this is not my goal!) but when you are surrounded by people who see it as a moral failing not to speak their language… and when you can’t express yourself, it feels different.

    I also read, somewhere, that people who attach “too” firmly to their own language (spend years and years seeped in reading, writing, and speaking it as their primary mode of work, for example) have a harder time repurposing neural connections to a second language later in life. Of course, this doesn’t explain Terence’s facility, or Bill’s, but I guess we can just be grateful that we were wise enough to marry our betters.

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