Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ignorance WAS Bliss

The time has come to write a bit about the frustrations of language barrier, since it affects me everyday and it is for sure the biggest hurdle to moving here.

Before I came to Israel for the first time to study abroad, I didn't realize: A. how truly important language is and how much it influences and infiltrates every aspect of every part of life, or B. how much the language tells about the people that speak it.  Don't get me wrong, both of these points are very interesting in their own right, but the former is also quite frustrating at times.

Hebrew is an amazing language for many reasons.  First, the roots of the language date back so far and are intertwined with the Jewish people and the land here.  Modern Hebrew is not the same language that was used thousands of years ago, just as we do not speak English like Shakespeare anymore.  The roots of many of the words, however, are the same.  Hebrew is a root language, most words deriving from a 3 letter root and therefore the verb, noun, adjective and often times other things that are related to this word are spelled very similarly, following a variety of patterns.  For this reason, I think Hebrew is a pretty easy language to learn, comparatively, although to master a second language when you're in your 20's is never easy, no matter the language.  Because modern Hebrew has a lot of very new aspects to the language it does a great job of representing the Israeli's, the people that speak the language.  Sentences are short and to the point, just as Israeli's are.  There is no beating around the bush or sugar coating anything, in language or in attitude.  There are many phrases that describe the type of people Israeli's are, such as "l'asot chaim" which is like saying "have fun" but is literally saying, "make life," and "titchadesh" which you say when someone buys or has something knew and you want them to use it well/enjoy/etc.  There are many more phrases that I can't think of right now, too.

Moving on the the barrier part-When I was studying here my Hebrew was obviously at a much lower level.  Although I understood a bit and could speak a bit less, I missed a lot if a conversation was in Hebrew around me.  Since I still hang out with one of the groups of Israeli friends that I hung out with then it is easy for me to compare the differences.  What I realize then is that I did not even understand enough to notice how much of the conversation, and therefore the personalities of the people, that I was missing.  The Catch-22 is now that I understand much more, I know exactly when I am missing out.  It's like the more you learn the more you realize there is to learn.  I know exactly when a conversation turns to a topic where I don't understand the vocabulary, or the most obvious two times...when we're at a bar or club and I miss (so many) things because it's really hard to hear, or when there is a big group (usually 5+ or so) of people and many people talk at once.  These are the two hardest situations I find myself in now.  I flip back and forth between being extremely frustrated and feeling like I will never master the language, and realizing how far I have come and feeling positive about moving forward.  For example, conversations that use army vocabulary I understand almost entirely now whereas 2 months ago I was probably lost at the first army-specific abbreviation word used.  The problem I have now is that I know that I still do not know my Israeli friends entirely as they are because of my language barrier.  Times when, in English, I would overhear a snide comment they make, or a really nice comment they make, or an opinion, a joke or a complaint, I sometimes just do not hear, and therefore I miss a little bit about their personality/themselves.  In the 1 on 1 relationships I have I feel that I know and understand the person but there is also a huge aspect of a person that is shown when they are in groups of people, whether it be friends, family, etc.  To know someone on a general level is not difficult, but it's the people I've known for years, and our relationship is deeper than a general friendship, where I realize I have difficulty truly, truly knowing the whole person.  I really do feel, sometimes, that I'm missing out on some awesome aspects of some of my friends, and it makes me sad, and frustrated.

From the other perspective, I am also not the same person in Hebrew and in English.  If you know me then you know that I am an opinionated, outgoing, energetic, inquisitive person and I am certainly not one to sit quietly in a room of friends or even at a family dinner.  In Hebrew, however, if it is a decent sized group of people then I find it very difficult to be myself.  I rarely interject my opinion or ask questions, I come off as much more shy and introverted than I actually am, simply because I cannot express myself the way that I want.  It is not usually that I don't understand or can't follow the conversation, it is mostly that I can't listen, process, think, understand then formulate an opinion or response then figure out how to say it in enough time that it is relevant to the conversation.  By the time I figure out how to say what I want to say the moment has passed.  Again, in small groups and certainly one-on-one I am fine, but groups of people are difficult.

I cannot wait for my Hebrew to continue to improve, little by little, and I can truly feel like myself and know that I am not missing out.  I love the Hebrew language and there are many times when I prefer to speak in Hebrew or say a phrase in Hebrew because it either fits the situation better or can't be said as well in English.  Also, there are a decent amount of words in Hebrew that I hardly ever say in English or don't actually know the word for in English (this happens a lot in the army).  Because of this I also feel a bit of a language barrier with those that don't know Hebrew sometimes, if I'm talking to friends/family from back home.  I use my sister as an example, her Hebrew is excellent after her year in the army and also working for a year in Hebrew.  I cannot wait to get to the other side and be able to say that I overcame the language barrier (although it will never be 100%).

Remaining hopeful, but far too often (such as the whole weekend I just spent with Israeli friends, like almost every weekend) reminded of what I'm missing, and how long the road still is ahead of me.

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