By Eliana Rudee/JNS.org
“So are you, like, fluent yet?”
It’s a question that I get almost as often as, “Are you safe?” And it’s the only question I’m embarrassed to answer: “No, I’m not fluent yet.” As I’m sure you can surmise, this is usually followed by the questioner exclaiming with surprise, “Oh, really? I thought you’d be fluent by now!”
To be completely frank, I don’t think I’m even close to being fluent in Hebrew. The Ministry of Education in Israel says that I have a “high level” of Hebrew, but I beg to differ; and I’ll bet most Israelis would agree with me.
Yet my lack of fluency is not surprising considering that I work in English; I speak English with my boyfriend, roommates, and friends; and I speak Hebrew just 10 percent of the day—on a good day. I’m no longer enrolled in Hebrew classes, so my Hebrew is stagnating at best.
I’m not proud to admit my lack of Hebrew progress, although I do not regret any of my choices. I chose to begin my life in Israel in ulpan (Hebrew-language immersion school), a community of many Anglos who are going through the same experience as I am—making aliyah. It’s been amazing to have friends from the U.S., Canada, England, Australia, and South Africa. Together, we speak in our native tongue, while bonding over our experiences and becoming great friends. Of course, we speak solely in English. Life as an immigrant is difficult enough; the last thing we want to do when we’re letting off steam is challenge our Hebrew skills with each other for fun.
When I do speak to Israelis, I usually begin conversations in Hebrew. After all, I have to make an effort if I want to improve! But what usually happens is this: I begin speaking Hebrew in the vocabulary that I know, which sounds decent. Then, the Hebrew speaker thinks, “Great! She knows Hebrew!” and begins speaking at full speed with words I do not know. Needing to slow them down, I usually say, “Wait—I don’t understand. What is ___ (insert unknown Hebrew word)?” At that point, especially if it happens more than once, they just give up and switch to English rather than having to stop and explain.
It’s true, I could be more assertive and say, “I’m trying to practice my Hebrew, let’s speak in Hebrew but just a little slower.” But I usually don’t. Why? For one, Israelis don’t like to “go a little slower.” They get frustrated and feel like we are both wasting time. And two, when I’m speaking to someone in Hebrew, it’s often because I need to get some information, or convey some information. And if that’s the case, we’d better just get to the issue at hand in the most efficient way possible. I can learn on my own time, not when I’m bothering others. But unfortunately for me, this means not speaking Hebrew on a daily basis.
This lack of Hebrew fluency gets in the way of feeling completely Israeli. It’s not just the vocabulary and grammar that I lack; it’s also expressions, idioms, and cultural references. Not to mention “army speak,” which is a huge part of the Israeli culture that I will likely never fully understand.
I know there are many ways I can and should improve on the language front. While I may have the Israeli attitude down, as well as the body language (apparently I gave my dad the “wait” hand sign when he was trying to speak to me as I was on the phone), when it comes to spoken language, I have a lot of work to do.
First, I need to embrace the fact that fluency is not a destination but a journey—corny, but true. Becoming truly fluent can take a whole lifetime. There are plenty of people who made aliyah 30 years ago and are not yet fluent. I don’t judge them, but I can tell you that I don’t want to be one of those people.
Thankfully, there are organizations that recognize this problem for immigrants like me. Jerusalem Village has a new program called Alter.Native with multiple tracks for Hebrew learners. Students meet once a week with a teacher and the classes are conversational and fun. A Hebrew-learning community is formed, and wine is included. So obviously, I’m going.
The Ministry of Education also realizes that immigrants’ discomfort with the Hebrew language is a widespread issue, and has therefore allotted immigrants the benefit of a seven-week summer ulpan and five-month pre-academic ulpan class, in addition to the five-month ulpan I already completed. That’s almost a whole year of free Hebrew classes!
One surefire way to learn Hebrew (or so I’ve heard) is to volunteer somewhere where you can interact with Israeli children. I hope to soon find such an opportunity.
The last step in my plan is to reassess and redesign my plan often. Rinse and repeat.
Hopefully, this will bring me closer to fluency the next time I’m back in the U.S. So when I get the question—“So are you, like, fluent yet?”—I can answer them honestly, and in perfect Hebrew.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.
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