Last night I got a taste of how dumb it was to sign up for a Spring 2015 Spanish class on the heels of exclusively and intensely practicing French for a year. My Israeli cousin was in town with her four and a half year-old daughter. Even though I hadn’t spoken Hebrew in about a decade, I assumed it couldn’t be that hard to make conversation with a small child. I assumed wrong. Her vocabulary was way (way) bigger than mine, and every word that came out of my mouth was delayed by the process of first thinking it in French, then translating it back to English, then searching my brain like a Rolodex for the same word in Hebrew. And inexplicably, every time I wanted to say kayn (yes), si popped out instead.
Meanwhile, my cousin, who never spent more than a couple weeks at a time in an English-speaking country, is perfectly fluent in my mother tongue, because Israelis start learning English in second grade. When my brother, sister and I were little and used to visit our also-little cousins, we always returned to the States babbling in Hebrew. It was an equal playing field then – both sets of cousins picking up words from the other via immersion, both equally reliant on making ourselves understood through miming and the international language of child’s play. That kind of language acquisition is sometimes fun but more often frustrating, and I distinctly remember breathing a sigh of relief when the last of my cousins started second grade and the American kids could shift the weight of responsibility squarely onto the Israeli ones. From then on, English became the lingua franca between us. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the unfortunate consequences of that youthful decision to throw in the towel. Namely, I’m limited in how close I can get with one full side of my family. And I feel like a child when everyone gets together and wants to speak Hebrew but begrudgingly defaults to English so I can follow along.
Everyone has their own method of self-motivation. For better or worse, shame and embarrassment is mine. Ranking lower than a kindergartner on the comprehensibility scale had me wondering whether it was not too late to somehow crowbar a year in an ulpan into my language learning plans.
But realistically, there’s only so much time for these things. And I’ve prioritized French and Spanish because the one is the foreign language I know best and the other is the foreign language that is most useful. Hebrew will have to wait. And after all, soon enough all my cousins’ kids will get to second grade…
[Photo: Richard Cawood]