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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The deadly linguistic black hole

I realize I left you all hanging a bit in terms of Ulpan, the intensive Hebrew-language boot camp which I’ve been doing since the end of August.

That’s because I’M DONE!!!

I now, officially, Speak Hebrew.  I have an Official Paper to prove it tacked up on the fridge.  Well, the Official Paper actually says I have completed 500 hours of language instruction, which totally isn’t true because I got fast-tracked and missed nearly two months of the 5-month program… but hey, who’s counting?

Does this mean I’m fluent now?

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

image Nope, what it means, basically, is that I fall into the Linguistic Black Hole more often than ever.   To put it another way, with various literary references:

(if you click my links, btw, I get a teeny tiny kickback which helps keep my kids in Kindle edition ebooks!!!)

What is the Linguistic Black Hole?

Basically, I’ll be having a conversation with somebody, blah blah blah, and they are having a conversation with me, and everybody thinks it’s going just fine.  And then I say something that is, as my 18-year-old daughter would say, “not a thing.”

And suddenly, the conversation ceases.

Because the person across from me is suddenly thinking, “huh?”

The Linguistic Black Hole is an error so egregious that the person cannot even imagine what I am trying to say.  Like if you walked up to an English speaker and announced to them, “I am flowers.”  Huh? 

When you make a little mistake, people are usually happy to correct you – no big deal.  “Oh, you mean, ‘I am HUNGRY,’ not ‘I am ANGRY.’” (a common mistake for Hebrew speakers in English, by the way)  “You must mean you’re BORED in class, not BORING.”

I get lots of little words mixed up.  The word for interesting is “m’anyein” and interested is “m’unyan.”  Like bored and boring, they’re very, very similar, and people love to help me get it right – over and over and over.  The boy I tutor is very patient as he tells me repeatedly that seashells are “tzdafim,” not “tzdifim.”  No biggie (I just hope the other one isn’t something rude).

This happens to everybody:  an oleh posted in a facebook group recently about how he called to arrange a job interview (reyayon) but accidentally requested a pregnancy (herayon).  It happens.

There’s a famous story of my father-in-law, with his lifelong French impairment (despite a VERY French last name), visiting Paris.  Upon being asked by the waiter if he needed any butter with his meal, he already had butter on the table, so he announced proudly, “Ah, non, je SUIS le beurre!”  (“Oh, no, I AM the butter!”)

We all do it.

But the Linguistic Black Hole is something else entirely.  Like that foreigner who announces “I am flowers!”  He thinks he’s making his point, urgently and articulately.  But if you’re standing on the street, no flower shop in sight, you have no clue whatsoever as to what he could possibly mean.

So you stare at him.  And stare.  And say, “huh?” a few times.  While he waits there proud of himself until it gradually sinks in… he’s fallen, and he can’t get up.

But of course, you have to get up.  A famous passuk (verse) says “Sheva yipol tzaddik,” a righteous person falls seven times… “v’kam,” and he gets up (שבע יפול צדיק וקם).  This is the difference between a tzaddik and a regular person, the refusal to accept discouragement as anything but a temporary obstacle.

For olim, tzaddikim that we all are, there’s no choice.  You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again, explaining in small words until they understand.

Well, unless you fall into that other humiliating scenario, the Sudden Switch into Terrible English, when the listener realizes that the scales have tipped:  their English is better than your Hebrew so they’re going to help you out by not listening to your Terrible Hebrew at all anymore.

On a Humiliation Scale of 1 to 10, gentle correction feels like a 4 (down from about 9 when I first came here in February!), the Black Hole feels like about an 8, while the Sudden Switch is a 9.

(Sudden Switch coupled with Skirt Falling Down would be a 10.)

People tell me not to take it personally, that Israelis love to practice their English, but to me, it’s the ultimate rejection of all my work and that hard-earned (if somewhat inaccurate) Official Certificate hanging on the fridge.

“You are not really a Hebrew Speaker after all,” they’re saying.  “Just stick with what you know, because there’s no hope here for you.”

“אבל, אבל, אבל,” I stutter.  “אל תאזוב אותי!  יש עוד תקווה!”

(aval, aval, aval… al ta’azov oti!  yesh od tikvah! – “but, but, but… don’t abandon me!  there’s still hope!”)

“Eych?” they ask, staring into some less-troubling middle distance.  “You want I should explain you in English?  Okay, I explain.”

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