Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech: On Learning Hebrew in Israel

by Letitia Trent

As our plane arrived in Israel’s airspace, I listened to Pimsleur’s Hebrew lessons on my headphones, which go over the same phrases in half-hours of repetition, the accent-less audio-guide voice followed by the native speakers, who respond to his commands (Tell her you do not speak Hebrew. Ask her how she is doing today. Say “let’s go to my place”). I practiced the way the female voice’s inflection went up at the end of certain phrases, such as beseder (OK or Good).

I had tried to study ahead of our scheduled move to Tel Aviv. In Burlington, Vermont, my husband Zach and I had weekly basic Hebrew lessons from an Israeli man studying in Burlington. He was young, with messy black hair, but had a courtly, polite, and serious demeanor that belied everything I’d read about Israeli youth from the Let’s Go Israel! travel book.  He photocopied Hebrew words and phrases transliterated into English for us and insisted that we had to study. We tried to please him, but usually had lost the worksheets or neglected to study them at each meeting. We met once a week, which wasn’t enough for anything to stick. By the time we boarded the plane, after a month of visiting family in Oklahoma and Arkansas, we’d forgotten everything. Pimsleur didn’t help. By the end of the flight, I knew how to say “I don’t speak Hebrew”, “I don’t understand Hebrew”, and “Do you speak English?” It would have taken another five or six hours of listening to get past the words for hotel, the taxi, and the bills and down to something substantial. By the time we landed at Ben Gurion, we had no Hebrew but assertions about how we cannot speak it.

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Although I’ve never been particularly quick when it comes to subjects like Math or Science, I’ve excelled in language since Elementary school. My memories of school are punctuated with sudden realizations that what others seemed to struggle with—reading, vocabulary, comprehension—came easy to me. I can remember a whole section of read-and-respond comprehension questions in a standardized test where we had to read a dry, boring history text and then respond to questions about the meanings of sections. I finished the test and set down my test booklet. I noticed, then, that everybody else was still working—most still reading the text. This wasn’t a source of pride, but curiosity: how could something so essential to me, language, be so difficult for everyone else? My inner life from the ages of eight to seventeen came almost exclusively from books. I was shy and physically isolated from other people my age (I lived in the woods, by highways, and didn’t own a car until I got married), and so I learned about people who were not me from books.  I didn’t understand what everyone else had inside of their heads, if it wasn’t books.

Before moving  to Tel Aviv, I’d imagined that my primary discomfort would be in speaking to people, but this is not the case. About 85 % of people in Israel speak English, and even more in Tel Aviv. The problem isn’t speaking to people so much as grasping the general tone of a place based on the signs, the advertisements, what people choose to put on chalkboards outside of bars and restaurants.  Now, the world around me is encoded in chunky Hebrew letters which carry messages that I don’t understand.  A billboard by the sea, featuring a picture of a boy smiling, his hands folded school-picture style on the table before him and with a paragraph of block-text to his right, baffles. Is this billboard an advertisement, a warning, or a public service announcement?

I can recognize letters and some words, but for the first time in over twenty years, I have to try to read. I sound out Hebrew words painfully, like a child. The feeling brings me back to elementary school, when I hated speaking out loud in class so much that I flatly refused to read aloud, so I was eventually put into remedial reading classes, where we practiced sounding out words slowly, hunched over our desks with our fingers under each letter. The remedial reading room gave me sympathy for those who couldn’t read well. It was embarrassing to be stuck on a hard combination of letters, like the word thought, it’s unmercifully illogical “ou” and “ght” combinations, which sound nothing like the individual sounds of those words.

After almost four months of Israel, as soon as someone comes up to me speaking Hebrew, every bit of Hebrew I’ve learned falls out of my head. I get tongue-tied, afraid that I’m wasting somebody’s time and end up saying the only words that come to me: Anglit (English), I say, apologetically, Slicha, Slicha (sorry/excuse me), Ani rac medeberette anglit (I only speak English).

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In our neighborhood, the old city of Jaffa, or Yafo, as it’s pronounced in Israel, Arab shops and restaurants outnumber Jewish ones. At first, I tried to speak in Arabic to the Arab shop owners and Hebrew to the Jewish ones. In almost every shop in Yafo (above the cash register, usually) you’ll find some indication of the religion of the shop owner. In Arab shops, you’ll often find fancy Arabic calligraphy or a Tree of the Prophets of Islam. In Jewish shops, you’ll often find a chamsa (hand-shaped good-luck charm).

I heard from Zach that one of his friends, a non-Israeli who speaks Hebrew fluently, found that some Arabs find it offensive for Hebrew speakers to try to speak Arabic. Though Israel officially has two languages—Hebrew and Arabic—Hebrew is the spoken language of the country, and in my experience, few Jews are fluent in Arabic. Many Arab-Israelis, though they know and speak Hebrew, speak Arabic with each other (you hear it in the streets of Yafo, coming from clouds of perfumed smoke at nargilla bars or groups of young men at coffee shops). The language is one way to retain Arab culture in a country dominated by Judaism and Jewish culture.

My Israeli friend D, though, told me that it isn’t so clear cut. The problem isn’t just Hebrew and Arabic: it’s any dominant language confronted with a more marginalized one.  Of course, you can speak any language with a heart of condescension, with a sense of ridiculous pride that you’ve spent ten minutes on the internet looking up the correct words for hello and goodbye. This can happen anywhere.

Anything done with kindness will be understood as kindness, she told me. I am still not sure.

Language is personal, political, and what we use to wound and show superiority. My native language is a bully, and the language I’m learning is tied to the concept of Zionism, which I imagine that most Arab-Israelis resent. I don’t know how my intended kindness translates.

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Our Ulpan teacher, Chava, holds up her hands as we stumble over the Hebrew letters.

Hebrew is simple, she says. Hebrew is not a problem.

She’s right. Hebrew, unlike most languages I’ve tried to learn, is very regular and is indeed not much of a problem outside of the different alphabet, pronunciation, and maddening lack of vowels. Hebrew is so regular because its spoken form was largely constructed, with modern words added to the lexicon. Hebrew, after the diaspora in 70CE, remained primarily in written form through religious texts. When early Zionist leaders such as Ben Yehuda set about systematizing, modernizing, and creating the new/ancient language of Hebrew, they understand why it was so important: a culture must have its own language. Taking a common European language wouldn’t have worked: Israel had to reach back farther.

It’s astonishing to think about how new spoken Hebrew is. In 1881, when Ben Yehuda moved to Palestine and insisted on speaking only Hebrew with his family, he was probably the only Jew in Palestine speaking Hebrew exclusively in the home. Now, a little over a hundred years later, an entire nation speaks it, and the language has grown from its roots into its own, strange creature.

The difficulty arises in Ulpan class of exactly how to teach Hebrew. Do you teach schoolbook Hebrew or Hebrew the way it is spoken, which is often in an extremely contracted form with frequent intrusions of other languages, such as Yiddish, German, and Arabic? For example, while standing in the line at the bank or grocery store in Israel, if you don’t move quite quickly enough, you might hear yalla, yalla, usually from an elderly man or woman at the back of the line. Yalla is an Arabic word. Once, in a taxi on our way back from a party, we heard the taxi driver explain to a passenger in the front seat—a Transylvanian woman working in Israel—that the word yalla was not actually a Hebrew word.

We took it from the Arabs, he explained. It means move.

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As an American, I have the benefit and the curse of not having to pay much attention to my culture, my language, my identity. I do not have to fight to hold onto it, to make sure my language doesn’t die or my rituals are preserved—the US is ubiquitous, and knowing English is (unfortunately—but that’s a whole other essay) considered a necessity for success in most countries. My language is the language on T-shirts and products from Shanghai to Paris. Israel, a country just over 60 years old, had to create fluency in a relatively short period of time in order to unify a culturally and linguistically diverse citizenship. The Ulpan system was created as an easy, quick way to teach immigrants Hebrew, and it seems to work: though it doesn’t make people immediately fluent, it does provide an “in” to the culture that isn’t always offered in other countries.

My Ulpan class isn’t traditional. No olim chadashim (new immigrants), and Zach and I are probably the oldest people in the class. The majority of us are non-Jewish. We consist of three Chinese students, four Americans, and half-dozen Polish students who seem to have an uncanny ability to pick up the language but don’t seem to recognize the Jewish religious songs that Chava sings, which makes me think they didn’t get the basics of Hebrew through a synagogue. I’m not sure if they’ve studied before (Zach’s theory) or if their young, elastic brains make it easy for them to learn another language compared to my older, less flexible brain (my theory).

The Polish students speak Polish to each other and English to Chava. They turn to each other sometimes and speak perfectly easy, fluent Polish, and it makes me wonder at fluency at all: how do we all learn to navigate our native language so easily? I wish that I had access to their language, too. Compared to Polish, I have a good start in Hebrew. I know over 25 verbs. I can request to go to the bathroom, ask for food, and tell somebody that I want to shop or speak or walk. I know nothing about Polish. There are so many languages I will never know, books I will never read in their original languages, and people I will never know as deeply as a native speaker of their language could. There simply isn’t enough time to understand more than a few languages in one lifetime.

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In my opinion, the saddest Bible story is of the Tower of Babel. Once, there was a universal language that everybody spoke, and we all understood each other. Since we all understood each other, we could organize, and soon, people began to build larger towns and higher buildings, which angered God:

And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’

Note here what the problem really is: it’s the fact that humans, when they understand each other, can work together, which creates so much promise that even God is jealous

I’ve been studying Hebrew for two months, and I’m amazed at what I still cannot say. I can’t explain in Hebrew why studying languages ultimately depresses me, though I need and love to do it and could never live in a country without at least trying to understand the language(s) spoken there.  I can’t explain in Hebrew why I am a writer, why I don’t miss the United States, or why I don’t know where I’ll live after we’ve left here and why am happy about that fact. I can’t say anything important yet—but compared to Russian, German, Cherokee, Swedish, Icelandic, Japanese, and on and on, I can make due. Making due, at least when it comes to language, never feels like enough.

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3 Responses to Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech: On Learning Hebrew in Israel

  1. karimabuawad says:

    I think those who speak English are fortunate because people can understand them wherever they go but they’re also unfortunate for the same reason. You mention how when you’re at an impasse, you can always say “slecha” and switch to your native language–precisely because the chances are the person you’re talking to can speak English. In a strange way, the really valuable (and I mean valuable literally and figuratively) linguistic skill you have insures that you’ll never be in a situation where you must make due with Hebrew (or any other language you want to acquire really bad).

  2. Dagny... says:

    Thank you. That article touched me deeply, on many, many levels. From my intentions of minoring in foreign languages (Japanese & Russian) and never following through; that after five years of middle and high school Spanish I will always regret not spending more time learning the language from my Great Aunt Lupe before she passed (as much as she tried); to marrying an Israeli from Tel Aviv who tirelessly tried to teach me Hebrew and the most I can speak in Hebrew is “purple” and “no”; to traveling through over 19 countries experiencing constant internal embarrassment for only being able to read numbers and say “please” and “thank you”… I could go on and on. This one hit home at a deep, visceral level. Reminded me of my deep love of language and the need for us to communicate at a global level.

  3. John Dunn says:

    There was a time when Arabic was routinely offered in Israeli schools, but that stopped at some point.

    Having lived there for a year myself, in the early 1970’s, I can say that Hebrew is not an easy language to learn. But I learned by forcing myself to speak it with the Israelis on the kibbutz where we lived and by the end of my year there, I was able to get through most days without having to turn to English. Even today, when I visit Israel, I can still speak a bit and understand a lot more than I can speak.

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