Wednesday, February 1, 2012

not [yet] bilingual

I’ve said this before but…I didn’t realize before I moved to a country with a language that is not my own how crucial language is to our lives.  To say that it influences every aspect of every day is true but almost hard to conceive until you are put in the situation.  Friends, work, relationships, grocery shopping, going out to eat, bus schedules, your bank and cell phone company, TV/movies (although I have to admit, most are in English), the person you meet on the street (if you’re in Jerusalem there is also a good chance they are American, too, though), in short…everything.  All of these things are manageable, some much easier than others, with either a bit of knowledge of Hebrew or sometimes even just using English.  Most people know English here and if not, many services are provided in English too…they’re usually just even less helpful or correct than the Hebrew.

A year after moving to Israel one hurdle that continues to stare me in the face everyday is dealing with interpersonal relationships.  If it is a one-on-one relationship with an Israeli I usually have no problems, I know enough of the language to be able to tell about myself, express myself, have them get to know me, get to know them, etc.  It takes time but this is usually not a big concern of mine.  In larger social settings, however, with a group of people, I am often reminded of the language barrier.  It is like the saying, “The more you learn the more you realize there is to learn” or however it goes.  It’s very true, the more Hebrew I learn, the more I am acutely aware of the language, innuendos, or social references that I am missing, and therefore how much more I have to learn.  Under-the-breathe or side comments are something that I often miss and I have begun to realize how much of an insight they can be to someone’s personality, opinions, or beliefs.   If I am not either a. involved in the conversation or b. paying attention to the conversation then I usually do not hear what is being said.  In a second language that one has still not successfully mastered the whole “subconscious listening” thing doesn’t seem to happen.  For example, if I am having a conversation in English and there is another conversation happening next to me in English, even though I’m not actually listening or paying attention to that second conversation, I could probably still tell you at least the main idea of what they are talking about, perhaps even more detail, because I somehow or another still heard it and it partially entered my brain.  In Hebrew I have nothing of this sort going on.  If I am working and people are talking around me there is a chance, depending on how much concentration my work takes, that I probably didn’t hear a word of the conversation around me.  This is more crippling than it may seem.

I find that, as part of the language [I’m ready for it not to be a] barrier, it not only takes me much longer to get to know people but it also takes them longer to get to know me.  I’m much more introverted in a Hebrew setting, which is not the greatest.  It’s very hard to think “if this social setting were in English would I have said something there, entered my opinion, asked a question, etc” but I would assume that generally the answer is yes since, if you know me, you know that I’m not a quiet or shy person.  My friend Daniel is someone who definitely notices this aspect in me, and pushes me a lot to change it.  He’s right, it is only a barrier if I make it a barrier, but it is really hard to ignore the fact that I mishear, misunderstand, or simply miss things.  In this situation, ignorance is bliss and I wish I were more ignorant.  When I was studying abroad here I had the same group of Israeli friends in Jerusalem and I honestly don’t remember feeling such a language barrier, which doesn’t make sense because I barely knew any Hebrew, and most of the friends don’t know English.  It just goes to show that the barrier really is what you make it. 

The social setting in the army, and with my Israeli friends, really makes me realize how much of life happens in the little, in-between, moments; the short quick conversation, the side comment while watching TV, the text message, the joke made in passing, these are a lot of the things that I am still working on understanding, and being a part of.  These are a lot of the times when I am silent, choose not to comment because I’m not sure I understood 100% and I don’t want to look silly, or I’m not sure exactly how to say what I want to say.  These are the things I need to get over.  I look like a fool often enough in Hebrew, I make a lot of mistakes, and I still continue to speak in Hebrew almost every opportunity possible, so why not push myself even further.  Who cares if I look silly…better to look silly 1 year after moving here where I am still very much allowed than to keep going like this and never overcome these obstacles. 

I could choose to speak in English almost all of the time, and people would get to know “the real me” or get to know me a lot faster, but I’m not sue this is the answer.  It is tough to deal with knowing that people don’t get to know me as quickly or as much as I am used to or would like, but I still think that sticking to Hebrew will pay off in the long run.  Hopefully I’ll get to the point where “Hebrew Lauren” and “English Lauren” are much more closely related, and there is no difference on the relationships.  

College vs Army

Someone (I forget who, sorry) told me I should write a blog post about this.  It's one of those things that you're always reminded of in the moment but when you sit down to write about it you can't seem to remember what you were thinking or what you realized.  Well, here goes anyway...

When an American student is in their second, third, and especially fourth and final year of high school they may busy researching, visiting, applying, planning, and deciding which college or university they want to attend for the next few years, and which path of study most interests them (although 50% enter undecided, we'll get to that later).

When an Israeli student is in their second, third, and especially fourth and final year of high school they are busy researching, testing, and deciding which unit they most want to belong to in the Israeli Defense Force.

From experience (in fact, this entire entry is strictly based on my own experiences) I can pretty confidently say that if you asked the average American college student if they could imagine themselves in the army instead of in college, they would probably say no.  If you asked some of the 18 year old Israeli soldiers if they could imagine themselves in university instead of the IDF they would probably answer with something like.."ahlavai" meaning..."if only."  Of course there would be the more Zionistic, nationalist ones who would answer "no" because they've been planning on being drafted into the army at age 18 since they knew what the IDF was.  Yes, many would voluntarily draft even if it wasn't mandatory, and many would die to be at an American university instead of at boot camp, but I'm pretty sure all would say that their path for the next 2-3+ years and an American 18-year-old's path for the next 2-4+ years are basically polar opposites, so they think.

Drinking, partying, studying, "no parents" (no rules)...boot camp, guns, commanders and discipline. But wait a minute...moving away from home, meeting new friends, living with roommates, eating dining hall food, sharing bathrooms with too many people, lack of sleep, learning new material and skill sets, pillow talk, shower parties, gaining weight (yes, the "freshman 15" happens in the army too, and not from beer), learning time management, longing for home cooking, drinking too much coffee, saving your laundry up until you bring it home for mom to do....seems to me like there might be more similarities than differences!  The two big differences are that in University there is a lot of drinking and not a lot of rules or discipline.  In the army there is no drinking and everything is run by rules and disciple.  Besides these two (okay, fine, BIG) differences, everything that has to do with moving out and being on one's own, learning about yourself and how to live with others, make new friends, manage your time, learn new skills...these are all the same.  For the past 6 months I found myself a few times analyzing the behavior or comments of a lot of the friends I am serving with and realizing that I went through an awkwardly similar time in my life when I started college.  Thankfully I have been lucky in serving with a lot of people who are not 18, who took a year off between high school and the army, who have traveled the world a lot with diplomatic or banker families and have a broad world view, who (2 or 3) also have a degree!, who are also American/Canadian/British, or for some other reason are not the "typical" Israeli soldier, like me!