So… At the end of my last post, about my trip to Jordan, I wrote that I had to wrap things up quickly in order to “head off on my next adventure.” As I typed those words — while running fifteen minutes late to get out the door for the airport — my superstitious self thought twice. If I let those words hang in the digital air, would they jinx my first trip to Israel in fourteen years and somehow turn my coming adventure into a misadventure? Would they magically conspire to make me miss my plane, or get stuck in the country because of my passport issues (which reached new heights of ridiculousness this year), or prevent me from entering the country in the first place?
Turns out my paranoia was entirely misdirected. None of those things happened — though the hijinks of getting in and out of the country with an expired Israeli passport (during an interior ministry strike right before a major national holiday) were next level. What did happen was that I had to go to the E.R. in Haifa, I spent four days in the hospital there, and I had a semi-emergency operation, smack in the middle of my trip. It was not fun. But it was both mind and heart-expanding. Uncannily enough, my last night in Israel was the first night of Passover, and attending my family’s seder felt like a celebration not only of the ancient Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt but also of my own liberation from a health crisis that had been holding me hostage.
This week I bought myself a lifetime, unlimited languages subscription to Rosetta Stone for the bargain basement price of $179. The only hard part of the decision was picking which language to dive into first. Since I am hoping to visit Israel soon, I ended up starting with Hebrew. I chose a learning plan at the intermediate level, optimized for those who feel compelled to learn for familial reasons.
So far, Rosetta Stone’s technique seems to be close to Duolingo‘s, i.e. immersion without explanation. Not sure I love that approach, although I’m also not sure it’s the only one they employ — I’m still early on in the process.
As of tonight, I’m officially three lessons in, and I’m starting to be served words that I recognize but don’t understand, as well as some words that I’ve never encountered before at all.
I learned the word for “to swim,” for example — לִשְׂחוֹת (lischot). Useful! And in that verb’s case, it did seem effective to keep seeing and hearing the word next to pictures of people swimming. But in the case of the verb לְבַקֵר (levaker), a word that I have heard a ton before — but whose meaning evades me — the pictures of people waving did not help. My best guess was that it must mean “to greet” or “to say hello,” but there was no way to check within the lesson itself.
I was just about to Google it when my parents Skyped me, so I asked them instead. My mom’s immediate response to the question, “What does levaker mean?” was, “To criticize.” I told her that either she must be wrong or I must have said the word incorrectly, because the contextual images I was shown were all happy-go-lucky people waving to each other outside houses. Then she said, “Oh, well it also means ‘to visit.'”
I’m not sure whether the people without Jewish mothers will appreciate the brilliance here. This ancient language of my people has managed — with irony, with dry wit, with perfect precision — to nail the contemporary (and, it begs the question, perhaps also the eternal?) Jewish psyche in just one word.
Though it would never have occurred to me to think of it this way before, “my mother is visiting me” and “my mother is criticizing me” are virtually interchangeable. A visit without criticism would be like a ship without an anchor, an empty vessel.
While I need no explanation for how my mother makes the leap from visiting to criticizing, I was curious about how Hebrew made the logical link between the two. My father pointed out that a third definition for levaker is “to examine.” If you think of them on a continuum, it starts to make sense. The three actions flow in stages from one to the next: you visit, you examine, you criticize.
I just find it hilarious that Hebrew puts the entire continuum into one word, especially when another perfectly good continuum would be: to visit, to examine, to praise. Perhaps a different language — one belonging to a more lighthearted people — possesses a word like that.
P.S. It just occurred to me that this post was an exercise in levaker: I visited my blog, examined a word, and criticized both it and my mother.
Last year right around this time, I was supposed to fly to Costa Rica to visit my Israeli cousin and her family, who were concluding a sabbatical year there. My other Israeli cousin was due to arrive at the same time, and we were all going to have a weeklong adventure together. In preparation for the trip, I wasn’t sure if it would make more sense to review my Hebrew or my Spanish. I wanted to do both, but in the end I did neither. And as it turns out, it didn’t matter, because COVID cancelled the trip.
Costa Rica was never on my bucket list, but hanging out with my cousins for the first time in a decade, and meeting their kids, are both very high up there. My four Israeli cousins have had nine children between them, and I’ve only met four of them. One is already a teenager, and I’ve never even had a real conversation with him. So, I’m now committed to go to Israel as soon as I can after the world gets reasonably back to normal. If I make it there in 2021, it will have been 13 years since my last visit.
I had not really used my Hebrew in about as long — until six months ago. Then, on an acquaintance’s recommendation, I watched the Israeli TV series, Shtisel. I binged it twice in a row, gorging episodes back to back ’til 4 in the morning on work nights, like an addict. It was a strange time, pandemic-wise, and love-lorn black sheep Akiva, his recently deceased mother, his widowed grandmother, his tortured fiancee, and even his obnoxious dad, spoke to me. I wept for them all at the drop of a hat. I also wept at every instance of the theme music and at every dream sequence, i.e. quite a lot. It was the weep-fest I needed, after more than half a year of watching the world fall apart with strangely dry eyes.
It was also a Hebrew-fest. The nice thing about Shtisel is that they speak slow and sparse Hebrew (or as it is called in Hebrew itself, ivrit). Someone like me, who vaguely recognizes maybe 25% of all basic Hebrew words, can actually put the story together from context clues. I also used the English subtitles, but I tried to do so less on the second watch. By the end of those 40 or so hours, I had inadvertently jogged my brain with all the Hebrew words I had heard over and over again growing up but that had faded over time. I also learned new words, like sof sof (“finally”), which made me really happy, because I already knew the word sof (“end”), and now here it was being repeated to create a slightly different meaning.
I realized that this was a prime opportunity to jump back into learning Hebrew, which I had been dancing around doing for a few years in any case. I had already logged many hours of listening practice through Shtisel, and only a few months before, I had intensively reviewed the Hebrew alphabet in a panicked effort not to forget how to read and write. All that was left was to start speaking.
So, I signed up for an hour a week of Hebrew conversation with a tutor. (Though they speak perfect Hebrew, I didn’t even consider asking my mom, dad, or Israeli family because it would be annoying, frustrating and/or embarrassing depending on the partner.) More recently, I asked my colleague at work, who I only recently realized is bilingual, to chat with me for 15 minutes every Friday. And, I started using Anki to review / learn the 100 most common Hebrew verbs and 500 basic words.
After spending months of the pandemic thinking, “I should do something productive with all this extra time on my hands,” and doing nothing, it seems I’ve finally gotten to the part in “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray starts learning how to play piano and sculpt ice. Still, I’m not putting in that much work, so I don’t expect to become a Hebrew speaker any time soon. But what amazes me is that I can have conversations — about what is actually happening in my life and others’ — at the level I’m at. With French and Spanish, I focused first on learning the language from a book, and then on speaking. With Hebrew, my goal is to be able to communicate with my family, so I’m putting much more emphasis on speaking and listening than on learning the grammatical rules.
At the rate I’m going, it will be a super long time before I can hold my own with them in Hebrew, but that’s alright. Better late, and slow, than never. L’at l’at (slowly, slowly), as they — and now I — say.
A couple of months ago, I tried and failed to read a sign in Hebrew that I passed in the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. I realized that I was forgetting the alphabet, or rather, the Alef Bet. This filled me with horror, since I’ve known how to read Hebrew almost as long as I’ve known how to read English, and I thought the ability to do so was an unshakeable feature of who I am.
Then I realized that I had already forgotten how to read one other language that I used to know fluently. Three decades ago, I could play sheet music on my clarinet, effortlessly. (I mean, I could read the notes effortlessly. I could not play the instrument to save my life.) Continue reading →
During my last work trip, I did a lot of bouncing around:
⁃1 week in Dakar
⁃3 days in Abidjan
⁃Nearly 2 weeks in Korhogo, northern Côte d’Ivoire
⁃1 week in Abidjan
⁃1 day in Dakar
⁃1 week in Saint-Louis, Senegal
⁃2 days in Dakar
Like my body, my brain also bounced around a lot – especially when it came to French. In a relatively short period – 5 weeks – my speaking and comprehension skills flailed about on a continuum between nearly nonexistent and reasonably proficient. My French was so inconsistent, and my brain’s see-sawing (in)ability to speak it was so bewildering, that I spent much of my free time pondering what it all meant. A few thoughts, as haphazardly assembled as my French:
And it’s a big one – 5 years! Half a decade of hard work to finally speak French, and to consistently write in English. But on Sunday I forgot all about it in the midst of a bunch of craziness.
Had I remembered my blogiversary on the correct day, I would have realized how perfect the timing was. On Sunday I returned to New York from South Jersey filled with renewed motivation to get back on the language horse. That’s because I spent the preceding week with my family and was amazed and inspired by how my seven year-old niece has picked up Spanish practically overnight.
When I left the United States for Senegal at the beginning of January, my niece was two days into the bilingual English-Spanish program at her new school. All her classmates had started the program a half-year earlier because their parents had signed their kids up at the end of the previous school year. But Hannah and her family moved into the school district over the summer, and by the time they tried to sign her up, the program was at capacity. My brother and sister-in-law put her on the wait list and she joined the English-only track in the meantime.
In December, Hannah got the news that a space had opened up and she could start the bilingual track in the new year. My brother told me not to mention it to Hannah before I left, because she wasn’t looking forward to leaving her new friends and starting all over again with yet another set of new classmates. I thought that was a small price to pay for becoming fluent in a second language at a young age, but of course a seven year-old (six at the time) wouldn’t share that sentiment.
Cut to three and a half months later. When I hung out with Hannah, I made sure not to bring up Spanish in case it was still a sensitive subject. Instead, it was she who randomly answered a question from her mom with a Spanish response. Thinking this was my opening, I asked her how Spanish was going. Because she is seven, she couldn’t give her parents (who were in the room) the satisfaction of thinking that she had come around to their point of view, so she insisted over and over again that she hated Spanish – in Spanish. “Why?” I asked. “Porque es un otro lenguaje,” she answered in a perfect accent. In the ten minutes of Spanish conversation that followed, I struggled to remember how to say the most basic words and phrases, and she answered flawlessly, effortlessly, mellifluously. I told her that I was both incredibly impressed and incredibly jealous of her Spanish abilities and she rolled her eyes.
Yes, Hannah, I know that feeling. When I was approximately seven my mom hired a Hebrew tutor to come to the house and give me lessons after school. I still remember it with the visceral responses I had then, of life-threatening boredom mixed with intense desperation to escape. I don’t know what happened with the tutoring – I’m pretty sure it didn’t last longer than a couple of months. Maybe I moped about it so much that my mom gave in and discontinued the lessons. Thirty years later, I would give at least one good finger to go back in time and sit through those stupid lessons no matter how mind-numbing they were.
So, even though Hannah was not in the least excited about her newfound Spanish, I could not have been more excited for her. Clearly, one of my biggest unfulfilled wishes in life is that I had been raised bilingual or at least schooled bilingually. I would have saved so much trouble and hard work that way, with a better result than what I’ve got now after years of struggle and effort: inconsistent proficiency rather than fluency in French, ridiculously grasping Spanish, and exceptionally faltering Hebrew. I’d know how it feels to have two different but equally accessible forms of expression at my disposal, to toggle between two different worlds with ease. I will never know what that’s like and it really bothers me.
But, just because I’ll never have two equally balanced fluent languages in my brain doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying to learn other languages to the best of my ability. Without realizing it, my niece inspired me to get back to work. I am going to sign up for a Rosetta Stone subscription so that I can learn Spanish right along with her (or a few steps behind her, more likely).
When I started this blog five years ago my goals were to move to Senegal, learn to speak French fluently, and learn Spanish and Hebrew pretty well. I would say I’ve gotten about 50% there. On my fifth blogiversary (plus a few days), it feels appropriate to set a new goal for the next five years of this blog. Here it is: Go the remaining 50%. 💪
[The photo is a drawing that Hannah gave me last week. Apparently it is the cover to a blank book about the three little pigs; I think the point was that I was supposed to fill in the book. Because she is somehow a full-on Spanish speaker after three months of immersion, she wrote the title of the book in Spanish first, and then in English.]
When I lived in Senegal two years ago, my biggest goal was to become conversational in French. Though I wanted to be able to speak Wolof, the first language of most Dakarois, I knew I couldn’t handle learning two languages at once.
By the time I came back here for work, I had pretty much doubled my French speaking capacity, thanks to nine months in Paris, and I felt it was high time to learn basic Wolof. Continue reading →
Whenever I come across French-English faux amis – words that sound or look alike but have two different meanings – I think about the relationship that the words do have with each other. Many times they share a Latin root, and each word’s definition adds an interesting nuance to the other’s – often to amusing effect.
Take for example the following French words versus their English false friends:
défunt (deceased) vs defunct (no longer existing or functioning)
préservatif (condom) vs preservative (a substance used to preserve foodstuffs and other materials against decay)
imprégner (to soak or permeate, as in these confusing matches) vs impregnate (most common definition: make a female pregnant; less common definition: soak or saturate with a substance)
corpulence (a person’s build) vs corpulence (obesity)
ignorer (most common definition: to not know; less common definitions: to have no experience of or to ignore) vs. ignore (refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; disregard intentionally)
négligé (neglected, slovenly, scruffy) vs negligee (a women’s dressing gown, typically made of a light, filmy fabric)
I just find these pairings delightful, don’t you? Not as delightful: telling people – on more than one occasion – that there are way too many condoms in American food.
Which reminds me of one last, classic faux ami that embarrasses every French learner at some point or another: While “excité” can in certain circumstances refer to nearly the same thing as the English “excited,” it is more often used to refer to sexual arousement. So, don’t go around telling your French colleagues or in-laws, for example, that you are excité to see them.
If you’ve got other interesting faux amis to add, please let me know!
Also, a PS: Once, I was pleased to find a word (well, really a phrase) in French, “mal de terre,” for which I didn’t know the English equivalent. I had never heard the word “landsickness” before, and in fact I didn’t even know the concept of landsickness existed until it happened to me.
Recently, I came across the phrase “sea legs” used to describe “the illusion of motion felt on dry land after spending time at sea,” i.e. landsickness. I had always thought of “getting your sea legs” as adjusting to the motion of a boat on the water so that it ceases to be felt, but apparently it can refer to landsickness, too. I’m learning English right alongside French!
I’ve noticed that whenever I throw myself back into immersive French after a long stretch of barely using it, I experience something like the Tetris effect, which used to plague me for days at a time after playing too much of the game as a kid. Random word nuggets will pop into my head unbidden, apropos of nothing, and I’ll silently repeat them to myself – over and over and over again – until a new strange phrase appears from out of nowhere to take its place. Yesterday it was, “On ne sait jamais ce qu’il va faire” – You never know what he’s going to do. I have no idea who “he” is, yet this phrase colonized my brain-space for the better part of a day. This morning, meanwhile, I kept saying to myself, “Tu vas avoir un petit problème là” – “You’re going to have a bit of a problem with that.” What “that” is, again, I have no idea.