I’m becoming my mother in the most unexpected way

baby swallows.jpg

It seems I’m in French withdrawal. 

My first weekend back in New York, I went to lunch with my parents and we had a francophone waiter. I knew this not because he spoke anything less than the most perfect English with us, but because I overheard him conversing with his colleague in French by the cash register. Despite telling myself sternly, “Do not be that person, Ruth” some ineffable force compelled me to switch into French and ask him where he was from. Congo, apparently, and his colleague was from Senegal.

Since then, there’s been the father and his two kids on the subway, the vacationing couple at the restaurant in Hanoi, the retirees on the ferry in Hong Kong, the woman looking for a street downtown, the man watching his kids play in Central Park… Every time I hear anyone speak French – or even English with a French accent – I wrack my brain for a way to break into their conversation, en français, without seeming too desperate. Many times I can’t find one, and I am able to keep my mouth shut. But sometimes, my tongue disobeys my brain and follows my heart into the most awkward exchanges. Without fail, I feel silly about it, yet I keep doing it anyway.

I used to be mortified whenever my mother, a Brooklynite who moved to Israel in her 20’s and returned to the States in her 30’s, would butt in on strangers’ conversations after she overheard them speaking Hebrew. We’d be in the middle of the English-speaking world – a mall in New Jersey or a cafe in New York – and this native English speaker would find any excuse to say something to the Israelis in Hebrew. It always seemed that my introverted mother did this not because she truly wanted to engage with other human beings but because she wanted validation of her identity in the kin group. No matter what she said to them, all I ever heard was a pathetic, “Wink wink, I’m one of you!”

Now that I have caught myself pulling the same stunt on multiple occasions, I think of it a little differently. 

I suppose there is a small part of me that has something to prove: that I can still speak the language, or that I belong with the foreigners in my midst. But most of it has nothing to do with pride (which is good because there is nothing ego-boosting about sounding like a complete dope). Instead, the overpowering desire to speak French comes from…wanting to speak French. I have so few opportunities  these days that when I see one, I can’t pass it up.

I don’t really miss France, but I really, really miss French. It’s a beautiful language, and I love it. I guess my mother feels the same way about Hebrew.

So to that I say,

!כל הכבוד*

*Kol hakavod, i.e., “All the honor,” i.e., You go, girl!

[Photo: Rithban]

Advertisements

that time my brain was like Apple’s spinning wheel of death

book retrieval

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]

Si se puede: Jan Fertig edition

Aba in the army

For the second installation of Si Se Puede, in which I interview later-in-life-language-learners about how they got over the proficiency hump, I talked to my dad. Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, he moved to Israel when he was nineteen and to the United States when he was 28. He arrived in both places speaking no more than a few words of the respective country’s language, and he managed to learn both Hebrew and English remarkably well despite his claim that he can no longer speak any language – even his native tongue – fluently. Hoping the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to language acquisition, I attempted to pick his brain about how to do it:

How much Hebrew did you know when you moved to Israel?

As kids we had a little book, it was for children, it had all the two-Hebrew-letter words: dag [fish], gag [roof], yad [hand], vav [hook], I still remember all their pictures. That was it.

So when you moved to Israel how did you feel about having to learn another language?

I didn’t have to learn that. Everyone speaks millions of other languages there. I came with one of my brothers and a bunch of Czech and Slovak kids together. We came in ’69… 100 kids went at summertime to work in a kibbutz [communal farm]. They [the Israeli immigration agency] sponsored the trip and they thought that all of us are eager to leave Czechoslovakia, that all of us will stay in Israel, and that was not a very big success. Many went back to Czechoslovakia or to other countries.

So you went, and at what point did you realize you weren’t going back?

When my father called from Vienna and said he left and he’s not going back. [He was on his way to Germany with the rest of the family; they would eventually resettle in Israel.] He said we could go back to Czechoslovakia if we want, but it will not be because of him, because of the parents, because they are not there. And he said that was his excuse to stay in Czechoslovakia when Hitler came, he had older parents and couldn’t take his parents with him. All his friends left to Israel, all kinds of places, and he stayed because of his parents.

So how did you feel when you knew you were staying?

Eh, I didn’t care.

So what was going through your mind when you realized you had to learn another language and another culture?

Nothing.

What do you mean, nothing?

We didn’t care.

Why?

I don’t know, why should we care? We were in a group of Czech kids.

At what point did it become difficult?

Who said it became difficult?

How did they assimilate you?

Who said they assimilated us?

Well, what did you do?

We enrolled in the university. Classes were in Hebrew. First year they put us in a mechina academait. That’s like an ulpan [an intensive immersion class]. So we learned Hebrew there. I think it was for a year, I don’t know.

Aba 2

my dad and his eldest brother

So by the end of the year you spoke Hebrew?

Ehhh…

So what do you remember from the ulpan?

From the ulpan, one thing I remember. [My mom cuts in here: The teacher you liked.] Yeah, one teacher I fell in love with. Then another teacher, I got into big trouble. Huge trouble. One day she mentioned the word televisia (television) and then she looked at us, the Eastern Europeans, and said, “You know what televisia is?” and I said, “Lo, ma zeh?” [No, what is it?] And the rest of the day she was trying to explain what a televisia is. At the end she figured that I probably knew it all the time. Then I had to avoid her for several weeks.

So when you went into the wide world, was it frustrating that you couldn’t speak Hebrew?

No, everyone speaks Russian or something. [My dad learned Russian for years in school.]

Tell me about some faux pas you made at the beginning because you didn’t know the culture or the language.

My cousin told me that in Israel you have to bargain for everything; you cannot pay the price they ask you for. We understood that to mean everything. So we went to buy eggs, and so the seller said, “Each egg, 10 agorot,” and we said, “We’ll give you five.” He said, “No. For five I have these little eggs,” like D eggs or something. So that was the first experience, they wouldn’t let us bargain for eggs.

Another time, we were making schnitzels so we went to buy breadcrumbs. So we went to the store and we said, “Lechem,” [bread]. So they gave us big bread. So we said, ‘yoter katan’ [smaller]. So they gave us a roll. ‘Od yoter katan,’ [even smaller]. ‘Od yoter katan’… So it took us a while to get breadcrumbs.

When did you realize that you could speak Hebrew?

[Shrugs shoulders]

So when did you stop translating in your head?

I don’t remember.

The thing is with two brothers and a group of those Czechs that stayed there, we all went to the same school more or less, the same everything, and then we all went to Hebrew University. We were all in Jerusalem together so it didn’t really matter if you know the language, don’t know the language. We played bridge with a bunch of Polish guys and Polish and Czech is very close together… so we didn’t need any Hebrew.

Aba 1

hanging with the Czech kids

What about for your classes?

I was studying math; for math you don’t need to understand the language very much. My biggest problem in Israel was when I started computer science for master’s degree because the teacher was American, and he was giving lectures in English. I didn’t understand a word.

So what did you do?

I didn’t finish.

So when you met Ima [my mom, who is from Brooklyn, moved to Israel in her 20’s and also learned Hebrew as a second language], you were able to have full conversations with her in Hebrew?

Well I guess, yes. Whatever conversations we did.

So when Ima brought up the idea of going to America, what was your initial reaction?

We didn’t go permanently, we went to visit for a year or two.

So how did you feel when she brought that up?

Nothing. What? Why not?

But you didn’t speak English.

Okay.

Weren’t you worried about how you’d find a job?

Uh, no.

Why not?

I didn’t worry about anything! When I was younger I was worry-free.

en route to America with my brother

en route to America with my brother

How did you feel about the prospect of learning English only a few years after you learned Hebrew? And starting over again?

Yeah, it was difficult. I did not think about it. I just did whatever was to be done. I did go to school to learn English in Brooklyn.

So you didn’t start learning English until you came here?

I knew seventeen words in English. One through seven, club, diamond, heart, spade, double, re-double, pass, no trump, I think that’s it.

Also I could read in English because I was reading bridge books but I didn’t have any clue how to pronounce any of these things because I never heard it pronounced. Like “species.” If you look at that it looks like some “spetzies.”

So I learned English by reading bridge books, more or less by context I figured what it means, but then even years after, I was still connecting the written word with the spoken word. You know, that it’s really the same thing, I never knew. So for me English is like two languages – the written language, which I knew from reading bridge books and math books, and then the spoken language. Many times I know the pronunciation of a word because I hear it over and over, and I know the word written, but I realize only now that, “Oh, that’s the same thing.”

So what was your experience learning English versus learning Hebrew?

In the mechina, I think it was a year, so I learned a lot of grammar, vocabulary. In English, I learned much less, it was a month or two, the classes I took. That was a quickie.

How did you learn English beyond the two months?

Just by talking. I went to job interviews and…

How did you feel on job interviews when you had to speak in English?

Yeah, it wasn’t easy. Some guy explained to me how to get dressed for an interview, and what to do and all that.

Aba 6

When did you start feeling comfortable in English?

I don’t know. Never? No, ten, fifteen years maybe.

So I have memories of you when you didn’t feel comfortable in English?

Yeah. I learned English together with you and Ronnie on Sesame Street.

Aba 8

Why did you speak English to us instead of Hebrew when you felt more comfortable in Hebrew?

I didn’t feel comfortable in Hebrew either.

So why didn’t you speak to us in Czech?

Because I already forgot Czech by that time. I’m telling you, I’m a mess, I don’t know any language. It’s all mixed up. When I am tired all the words are coming out in all kinds of languages and people look at me like, what am I talking about, I’m dropping in words from here, from there. When I have to speak in multiple languages at the same time, I get confused which language to use when.

When did you start thinking in English?

I don’t remember any more. Same thing in Hebrew, I remember there was one day when I started dreaming in Hebrew but I don’t know when was it. But I think that is the turning point, when you start dreaming in the other language, that’s it, you are over. But counting, I still count in Czech.

Which is the language you feel most comfortable in now?

Now, English.

Tell me how switching languages twice has changed your personality.

I think it makes you more introvert, because you don’t know how to say it, you don’t say it, you know? So you are more closed to yourself. By the time you start knowing the language and the people and all that, you start over again.

So how did you end up staying in America?

I don’t know. Never decided to go back.

And you’re ok with that even though your whole extended family is in Israel?

I’m ok with, you know, anything.

What’s your advice to me to learn French at such an advanced age?

The only way to learn it is to speak it. Go to France! School won’t do it. You can learn the basics but after that you have to speak.

Thank you to my father for an entertaining conversation that revealed a great truth, applicable far beyond the language learning sphere: things are a whole lot easier when you’re ok with, you know, anything. I need to start putting that wisdom into action.