Friday, August 13, 2010

PART SIX. Language Lessons. Introduction


I don't know how much Hebrew you know, but when I came to Israel, I wasn't exactly a linguist. But I did come with a plan.

That's the key, Shloimy. You gotta have a plan.

Remember that!

My first plan was to arm myself with a number of phrases and words that I knew I could use repeatedly, to help communicate with Israelis. For example, I knew how to say, please, thank you, where, how, how much, etc.

I also made sure to know the Hebrew word for, 'bathroom'.

That's very important, Sholimy.

Remember that!

Then, I had a second plan: I was not going to bother with grammar, pronouns, adverbs, sentence structure--none of that. The only thing I would concentrate on was nouns and verbs. Period.

Why make life complicated?


For example, one day, I made arrangements to travel by bus with my wife to a shopping area in Jerusalem called the Talpiot Industrial Zone. I had to change buses, which meant that, as the second bus that I believed I would take came along, I needed to ask the bus driver something like, "Do you go to the Talpiot Industial Zone?...and..."Do you stop at Pierre Koenig Street?"

Well, I don't know how to say most of that. So I just waited for the bus I was looking for, and when it came along, I leaned into the bus and called out to the driver, "Pierre Koenig?"

Guess what, Shloimy.

It worked.

Who needs grammar?

With just two simple words, 'Pierre Koenig'--the name of the street I was supposed to go to--I was able to communicate.

Isn't that easy?

Another example: I needed to buy sunglasses. So I asked someone how to say the word, 'sunglasses' in Hebrew. I wrote down the word. Then, when I went into a pharmacy store, I didn't have a long discussion with a clerk about where the sunglasses were located--I don't know enough Hebrew to do that. So all I did  was, I went up to a clerk and (in Hebrew) said, "sunglasses?"

Guess what.

It worked!

Who needs long discussions?

My communication was successful.

 Here's another example. As part of my language survival plan, I decided that,  if I was talking to an Israeli and found myself unable to understand what that person was saying, I would simply say, in Hebrew,  'talk to me as if I were an infant.' My thought-process here was that the person would then slow down, use simpler words, and speak very clearly--just as they would with a young child.

Pretty simple, eh?

All I had to do was write done those words, 'please talk to me as if I 'm an infant', and I could use it when needed.


So, guess what.

It didn't work!

The first time I said that to someone, she looked at me and replied, in almost perfect English, "What do you think I've been doing? I've been talking to you like you're an infant! I've repeated myself three times already! How many times do you want me to repeat myself? "

Which, finally, Shloimy, leads me to my most important language lesson for you today: You don't have to be a linguist to come here. What you need is, respect!

That's right, Shloimy--respect.

You see, it works like this: if you go up to  an Israeli and start talking to them in English, most Israelis will ignore you, or indicate to you that they don't speak English.

Also, if you go up to an Israeli and ask, in English or Hebrew, "Do you speak English", most will usually tell you, no--mostly because English is only a second language for them, and engaging in an unexpected and random  English conversation with a native English-speaker is not so easy for them.


Yes, Shloimy, there is a 'but' here.

If you show enough respect, you get what you want.

You heard me--respect.

What you need to do is, you need to show that you are making an effort to talk to them in their own language, as bad as you  might be at that language. Then, as you struggle, they are usually willing to help you; some will even ask, "Would English be better?"

They will often do this, but only if you make the first effort.

For example, the day my wife and I went to sign up for our health plan, I realized that I could not remember the words for 'health plan', and I did not know how to say, 'sign up for'.

That could be a problem, right?

Well, it so happens that the health plan provider we were signing up for has the name, 'macabee' --you know, like in the story of Chanukah, when Israel was saved by the Macabees. In the story of Chanukah, not everyone joined the Macabees, but some 'signed up' with them--and they won!

So today we celebrate their victory, every year, at a holiday called,  Chanukah.

The word macabee that refers to those heroes of old is pronounced, 'macabee', with the accent, I believe, on the LAST syllable (this word has three syllables), as would be the case with the majority of Hebrew words.

But--perhaps to distinguish it from those heroes--the way you pronounce the name of the health plan provider, macabee, is by putting the accent on the SECOND syllable.

Got that?

Try it:  ma-ca-BEE.  Heroes of olde.

Now, try this:  ma-CA-bee. Modern health plan provider.

Repeat:  ma-ca-BEE (heroes)  and then ma-CAA-bee (health Plan).

See? You sound Israeli already.

So there I was, in a branch office of a health plan provider, trying to sign up, and I didn't know the words to use, to do that.

Of course, when I sat down to talk to the clerk there, the first thing I did was, I asked, in Hebrew, 'Do you speak English?'.


But she said, in Hebrew, 'No.'

Then she asked me a question which I did not understand.  I told her, in Hebrew, that I did not understand. Then she treated me like an infant--she repeated her question!

Finally, in Hebrew,  I said the only thing I knew how to say:  'We want to be Ma-ca-BEES'--with the accent on the last syllable, meaning the heroes of old, not the modern health plan.

The woman looked at me, dumbfounded. Clearly, she had heard exactly what I said--to sign up for the ancient Macabees, to defend Israel!

It took her a few seconds, however, and she then realized what I had meant.

She then proceeded to sign us up.

But I still could not understand her questions. In Hebrew, I stumbled. I asked her to repeat. I stumbled some more. We played a game that was a cross between twenty questions and charades. I stumbled more.

It was awful.

And the something special happened.

She began to speak in English--well, it wasn't really English; it was a form of  English that was as bad as my Hebrew.

But it worked. In fact, the more she spoke, the clearer she got. She got good enough that I complemented her on how well she spoke English--she spoke English as well as I spoke Hebrew!

Then, when she complemented me on how well I was doing with my (very awful) Hebrew, I learned an important lesson. Israelis--at least the ones I have interacted with--are more than willing to throw in an English word here and there, to help you out, if they see you trying. They appreciate your effort, they love that you are not embarrassing them by trying to force them to speak a language they are not good at, and they become very willing to help you.

By contrast--but much to my advantage--it seems that most Americans I have seen here won't even make the effort. They just walk up to someone, and talk in English.

So my effort is appreciated--and rewarded!

I have now gotten to the point where, when an Israeli asks me, 'would English be better?', I often answer, 'I'm trying to avoid that.' Usually, when that happens, the Israeli shakes my hand after our interaction, and has a big smile on his face--he has spoken to an American who is really trying to speak Hebrew--and he has just had an opportunity to practice a little of his own English, without being made to look stupid.

Yes, Shloimy, I understand that this means that you are the one who looks stupid, but you know what? By showing that you are trying, the people here really love that, and no one has told me that my Hebrew is awful. Instead, they have all complemented me on how good my Hebrew is, as a new oleh--a new immigrant.

It seems to give them a sense of pride that someone new is trying hard to master their language, and they seem to like that.

It's my friends in America who tell me that my Hebrew is awful.

So now, I'm sticking with my new Israeli friends!

But this is just the beginning, Shloimy. Learning a new language in the country where it is spoken, is exciting. In this section, I'll try to share some of that excitement with you. In fact,  I've got  some real language lessons for you.

Read and learn!!

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