Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Humility, or I Plan To Sound Like a Complete Idiot for the Next Two Years

Ulpan is, let's just say, a humbling experience.  Let's also say that today after Ulpan I came home and raced to find my bottle of Excedrin and gulped down a few.

Let's just start out by stating a few facts:
  1. I went to a very good Talmud Torah (thank you, Mr. Leo Reich, a"h!)
  2. I attended the Baltimore Hebrew College during my high school years and received an outstanding education in Hebrew language, among many other things (thank you, Rabbi Dr. Baumgarten a"h, Dr. Samuel Iwry a"h, Mrs. Leah Steinhardt, yb"l and others!!)
  3. In general, am pretty good at languages.
There, now I feel better.  Because after today I truly plan to sound like a blithering (blathering?) idiot for the next couple of years.

Today in Ulpan we got deep into the binyanim (conjugations).  Oh brother.  I am not shy in class and always try to give answers and I'd say 60% of the time I was wrong. 

The nice thing about Ulpan is that after sitting there for 4 hours, we are all kind of giddy with heads full of information and are just giggling about how dumb we sound.  Our teacher is fantastic - she speaks only Hebrew, is very patient, and explains thing exceptionally well.  She always asks us how we say this or that in English so that we have a frame of reference.  She knows enough of the other languages or her students that she is able to help the Russian and Spanish people as well.  Pretty awesome.

And of course we are all fluent speakers in our native languages, we are all adults, and we are all struggling to learn a totally new language, no matter how much school we went to.  We THINK we know how to say things, and are usually wrong.

So I want to officially apologize to any immigrant anywhere about whom I've ever thought that their English should be better - bless you for working so hard to learn a new language and culture and please accept my apologies.  I will NEVER again hear someone struggling in English and think anything but loving thoughts toward them.

Yesterday I had to arrange for auto insurance.  The woman called me and I asked if she could speak in English because beyond "how are you" and "I am fine" most Israelis speak too fast for me to understand them.  I've learned to request to speak in English, at least for now, so I don't miss important things like "you need to pay us 1000 shekel right now or we will come after you."  Things like that.

So here she was struggling to explain the ins and outs of the policy in English and SHE kept apolgoizing to ME about her English.  "No," I said, "I am sorry that my Hebrew is not yet good enough to speak to you in Hebrew."  And do you know what she said?  "It's ok, Susan, in another year I will call you and we will speak in Hebrew and you will be so good!"  Nice lady. 

I've found that most Israelis are very nice if you let them know that you are a new immigrant and apologize for your poor Hebrew.  That's my personal approach, I  mean it's the truth after all. Let's see if that line works after I'm here for two years and still struggling.  I guess I can always pretend to be a new immigrant, until some clerk at a store says, "Hey, didn't you tell me that two years ago?"

Now back to dikduk (grammar).  I am pretty sure that even after 5 months of Ulpan I will be better but not confident and will make tons of errors in my speech.  I am also sure that my poor Hebrew accent and halting speech will mark me as an immigrant forever.  So this is indeed a humbling experience.  I'm always going to be marked as a new kid on the block. And this after making a good living as a communication expert! 

It's frustrating not to be able to express oneself, but it's a good lesson as well.  You go back to basics, you forget your high and mighty-ness from the US, and you become a child again.  You depend on others more than you ever have, and you accept help.  It also makes you happy to be able to give help (I let a woman go ahead of me in the supermarket and she practically hugged me).

Humbling, but also energizing.  It makes you re-think a lot.


  1. Yes, extremely humbling. Don't worry about your accent - I work in a very mixed Anglo-Israeli company and all the Anglos (who have been here many, many years) have great vocab and horrible accents. I don't think it ever goes away.

    Random Israelis so far have been very kind and patient with me as soon as I say "Ani olah chadasha". I plan on using that excuse for years to come :)

  2. My dear sister, it is a life-changing experience to settle in a new country; although not as drastic, when I went to live in St. Thomas, it was truly a different 'country' even though it was a US territory. I had to learn entirely new customs and was always an outsider, one of the minority in a West Indian culture. A very humbling experience and one of the best things that ever happened to me! Kudos to you.