How’s your Hebrew?
Are you hoping to become bilingual once you get to Israel? You might… but it might not be what you expect, once you get there.
Being bilingual has, frankly, been a bit of a letdown.
Before we came, I wondered how long it would take to become “fully bilingual” in Hebrew. People even say “fully bilingual,” like there’s some kind of test for bilinguality. Like only 100% will do.
Having been here for a year, having done well in ulpan, I have to confess: I don’t believe in “being” bilingual anymore.
It’s not on or off; it’s like one of those round light switches where you can choose how dim or bright to have your lights. My Hebrew is dim… but it works. It’s enough to “see” by as we go through day-to-day life.
If I did believe in it, I’d say I was there already.
Walking to my son’s school today, I eavesdropped on a man shouting into his phone in the alleyway. At the medical clinic, I did everything the secretary and the doctor told me to. At the mall, I ordered food and paid and got change and not once did anybody switch into English to help me out. I sat through a one-hour parents’ night and understood more than 9/10 of what the teacher said.
I would not have been able to do any of these things a year ago, let alone two years. Let alone back in Canada.
So yeah, I’m bilingual, but it’s not the triumph I anticipated. Nor is it easy – at all.
Even at this very functional level – way higher than most Jews outside of Israel, and I get compliments on my Hebrew all the time – I am terrified, absolutely terrified when I have to speak.
For most of my life, I’ve envied and admired my siblings’ easy fluency in French. They all went to French immersion for various periods; I never got to. Yet because of my brother’s expert tutoring at a young age, I have never been afraid to open my mouth and sound my reasonably stupid French.
“Ou sont les bananes?” and “Je voudrais acheter des coupes-ongles” are two examples of sentences I have said with perfect comfort and ease (not necessarily accuracy!) in the aisles of stores in Montreal. Maybe it’s the Canadian thing, but French comes naturally in a way that Hebrew does not. Marshmallows are guimauves; the sun is soleil. It was not for nothing that my Grade Three French teacher called me, “ma petit choux.”
After we made aliyah, not only did I not speak Hebrew well, or even competently, but my French fled. I know it was locked into my brain somewhere, I simply couldn’t get at it. I’d reach for a word and it would slide out of the way, and my brain would dish up the Hebrew equivalent instead - “katan” instead of “petit,” and the lovely onomatopoeic “z’vuv” instead of “mouche.”
It’ll come back, I told myself. And sure enough, it eventually did. Not gradually, little by little. Just, one day, my French was back.
Plus, now I knew Hebrew. Without even realizing it, I had become bilingual… in my own dim way.
This bilinguality, it turns out, is not a comfortable, easy familiarity. It is an awkward, tongue-twisting and ear-bending struggle. It tuckers me out after a day immersed in it. But I’m coping, I’m speaking, and slowly, slowly (le’at, le’at, as we Hebrew speakers say), I see now the ways in which it will become easier.
It’s taken me by surprise.
I always thought “bilingual” meant it was EASY to speak both languages… and perhaps, eventually, it will be. For now… yes, I speak Hebrew. I hear stuff on the street and even when I can’t pick out the individual words, I get the gist.
If ulpan and immersion in Israeli society is the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” to the Hebrew language, then I stand before you today as a proud graduate. I may still be a Complete Idiot when it comes to Hebrew, but at least I am a bilingual one.