6 Reasons You Should Consider Learning Modern Hebrew (Even if You’re Not Jewish)

Llun Jared Gimbel.

Today is Israeli Independence Day, and yes, it is a Hebrew phrase that has caused many a foreigner to struggle pronouncing it: “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”. For those curious, it is just the literal translation of “independence day” (yom = day ha = prefix indicating “the” “atzmaut” = independence, abstract nouns, or verbs that can be expressed as nouns, often end in “-ut”)

Like so many other students in the Ulpanim, I struggled with Hebrew, and even more strongly I struggled with Israeli culture, that my father told me would be very similar to that of the U.S. but my experience in the country indicated that it was anything but.

I have to actually start writing a listicle in honor of “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”, so I will segway into reason no. 1.

 

  1. Israeli culture is refreshingly human.

 

In the United States, I often feel that a lot of people hide their emotions, hide their true feelings and often are considerably difficult to read. A lot of this may have to do with Hellenism combined with various forms of Protestant theologies, indicating that “showing emotions is bad” (in the Nordic Countries with the possible exception of Iceland, this is very much the case, as well as German-speaking countries in Europe)

Israel has very much the opposite problem, in which the directness is perceived by many westerners as “rude”. Many Israelis also believe that this is unique to their country in particular, but I’ve seen in this most of southeastern Europe as well as in Poland.

Israelis will become your friends more easily, they will ensure that you become a better person, and they will criticize you honestly and sometimes maybe a bit too strongly. This may be  harsh at first, but after a lot of time in Israel and heading to a place like Connecticut, you’ll probably think (like I did) that you are surrounded by “softies”.

Many of them will be forthright about their political opinions and even if you disagree with everything they say, they will still be your friend. After all, as one of my friends put it, “I have friends from both the extreme right and the extreme left. If we all stopped talking to each other, the country would fall apart in a week”.

Israel, on one side, does have the army culture, but in many other areas it is anything but a nation of conformists. A go-getter attitude that “sticks it to the man” is something that motivated me to do things like start this blog and start putting videos of myself online.

Speaking of videos…

 

  1. Israeli Comedy is what All Other Comedy Wishes It Could Be

Have yourself a look:

If you spend your time among Israelis, you may find your sense of humor sharpened to a degree you didn’t even think possible. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to find humor in everything, even the things that Americans wouldn’t even dream of joking about. It goes without saying why the Israelis needed to develop humor since before the state was founded.

Learning Hebrew only makes it more possible with being able to interact with this brand of humor in its most authentic form.

In a world growing ever more fearful, we need more laughter. If you want to laugh, there is seldom a better choice than with the Hebrew of contemporary Israeli TV, Radio and print media.

  1. Hebrew is a gateway to learning how languages work outside of the Indo-European bubble.

 

As a seasoned polyglot I seem to divide languages into two categories (and no, I’m not talking about “Disney’s animated films are dubbed in this language” vs “These same films are not dubbed into this language”).

The Indo-European Language family is confusing, enchanting and mesmerizing. Not only that, the VAST majority of  languages that people study are on the Indo-European spectrum, which goes from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all the way to Iceland.

Hebrew was my first non-Indo European Language, and the more I’ve come to studying non-Indo European Languages, whether they be something like Finnish or even further afield like Greenlandic or Burmese, I’ve noticed that they provide an exquisite quality that Indo-European Languages just simply can’t provide, whether they be something commonly studied like Spanish or even something a lot more rarely studied such as Gujarati.

Especially online, people tend to make would-be polyglots very afraid of non-Indo European Languages (Hebrew and Turkish and Finnish and Mandarin Chinese have very few words in common with English, unlike French, which does! French = eezy! Hebrew = hard! Be afraid! Ha ha ha!)

Ancient Hebrew is a glimpse of a language that existed way before Indo-Europeans proceeded to influence virtually every language out there (although there are a handful of words in common with Indo-European Languages of the Sea People).

Contemporary Hebrew is a great way to “test the waters” to see how a non-Indo European Language works (hint: a lot of them still have a lot of Indo-European influence). There might be a lot of struggling in learning how the language functions with verbs and prefixes and suffixes, but later on you’ll find tons of expressions taken mostly from Yiddish, Slavic Languages, English and French.

You may find yourself so enchanted by it that you may want to learn other languages that aren’t Indo-European as well! A highly rewarding experience!

 

  1. Israeli Music is Like Daydreaming in mp3 form.

 

Not a lot of songs that make you actually want to get up and do chores, right?

If you like nostalgic tunes that bring you back to your childhood living room, or need a hugging feeling once in a while, Israeli music will have a lot of that! (Not also to mention dance tunes and heavy metal, but that’s for another time!)

Check. Out. This. Channel. Now.

  1. Israelis travel EVERYWHERE

What I am about to say is not an exaggeration:

I have encountered Israelis in every country I have EVER visited.

Just got out from teaching a Hebrew class, and during that class I remember my meeting with an elite from Hillel International.

He told me a joke:

Scene: Peru

He asked his Quechua-speaking tour guide: “What are the most populous nations on earth?”

Tour Guide: China is first place, and then the United States, then Israel. I see Israelis everywhere!

Israelis are probably the world’s most seasoned travelers, and if you wear a yarmulke or other Jewish identifier or sign that you speak Hebrew in public, prepare to get “Shalomed” very often! In Berlin, this happened to my brother once every five blocks. Not a joke!

You’ll be able to get yourself free drinks or travel advice and compliments wherever you bring your Hebrew. Even if it isn’t good enough yet, you’ll definitely manage to open up people, as is the case with any language.

Most Israelis will also be really happy to help you learn Hebrew, even though there may be a few others that may have become disenchanted with the various vexations and “drama” of the culture. Once I even got told “let’s continue this conversation is English, because I speak English better than you speak Hebrew” (These are in the minority! I promise!)

  1. You can use your knowledge of Hebrew to be a peacemaker

 

A lot of Israelis (not the majority) have this understanding (possibly because of the school system) that the world hates them, and that they don’t win Eurovision because of anti-Semitism and that they are a point of derision throughout the whole world and no one wants their country to exist.

I’ve told ton of people from throughout the world (yes, even from the Arab world) that I speak Hebrew and that I have lived in Israel. It’s primarily the government policies that are the issue, not ordinary people, the language(s) or the culture (all of which are very much admired, actually! Same with all other countries that have their governments “appear in the news” very frequently)

I’ve seen some of my non-Jewish friends studying in Israel and it has been tough for them, no doubt. If you are a non-Jew (full disclosure: I’m an Ashkenazi Jew myself), and find yourself enchanted by Israeli comedy or the Bible or Israeli tourists or the beaches in Tel-Aviv, let people know! Tons of Israelis want to meet you and be friends with people like you!

Who knows? Maybe Peace will come to the region (or other regions) because of people like you!

And maybe the journey to world peace will begin with your journey to learn a language!

Who knows?

 

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My Weaknesses

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Here’s something you probably weren’t expecting me to write about, and I highly recommend all bloggers who give advice of any sort do very much the same.

Here I am, someone who writes instructions for people wanting to use their languages to talk to other people, to get to know other cultures, or who came here finding a perspective on how to learn rarer languages or those spoken in places in which English proficiency or fluency is the norm.

But I’d like to let you in on something: I don’t even see myself as any variety of authority on most days. Regardless of how much external validation or how many interviews I get or even if I speak ten different languages in a single evening without faltering in any of them (it has happened!), I still see myself as very much a flawed creature.

I just hope that my musings could provide an antidote to the discouragement we encounter all far too often.

My biggest weaknesses, and what I can do about them:

 

  1. I burn out easily.

 

This wasn’t the case back when I was in school, but I think the novelty of polyglottery has a bit worn off and for a few months now I’ve been hard-pressed to do any variety of language learning that isn’t directly connected to the Internet or an mp3 file.

I’m moving out of my apartment right now and as I write this I have on my left side a pile of no less than eighteen language learning books, and while some of them I have looked at cover to cover, I have an expectation that I should have memorized the contents of at least one, and I have done no such thing, despite the fact that a handful of the books are very worn out from overuse.

On top of game design and writing this blog I feel that my energy has been beaten down through cynicism, and somehow I need to get it back.

 

A possible fix: Maybe I should take a break from almost all rote-language learning for a while (excluding the maintenance with entertainment that I would usually use to take break, after all, watching “Let’s Play” YouTube videos in Finnish hardly counts as work in my book.)

Barring that, maybe I should wait a while and then perhaps a change in my life would cause me to return to these projects with new vigor.

I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to learn Welsh and I feel that I haven’t been making ample progress. On top of that, I have a travel destination in May 2017 (most likely) and an accompanying language mission that I cannot afford to “screw up”.

More on that for another time!

 

  1. I’m hypercompetitive

 

…but not in the way you might think!

 

I’m hypercompetitive with the ideal version of myself that I’d like to become. So when I make a mistake somehow or can’t switch languages fast enough (this is one thing that has been tripping me up as of late!), I blame myself.

If I feel as though I’ve been floundering in maintaining certain languages, I get uneasy even if I’ve had a lot to do otherwise and most other people would forgive themselves!

In short, I expect myself to be superhuman, but I can’t have it any other way. I’ve tried.

What’s more, I also have external competition, perhaps worrying that many other polyglots that have focused on more popular languages see me as something “less” because I would commit more time to something like Irish or Bislama than to French or Spanish.

 

A possible fix: take a note of my weak feelings and note to which languages I’ve had these troubles with. Use mini-exercises , nothing to stressful, to make myself feel good about using these languages again. Realize that mistakes are actually okay—after all I catch myself making grammatical errors or using the wrong prepositions in English more frequently than I used to!

 

  1. I get nervous easily.

 

There was that one time that I was asked to speak Icelandic to a guest at an event and I was so tripped up for a number of reasons that I could barely get coherent sentences out.

Then there are the times in which, if I have had something with sugar in it, even a little bit, my memory banks will be positively scrambled. It’s bad when you have to show up to an event having rehearsed Spanish the whole day and forgot the word for “download” accidentally (descargar, for those curious).

I should know that word, I think to myself, given how much time I use with video games to practice Spanish (which I am only moderately proud of and don’t consider myself good at most of the time, this statement applies both to video games and to Spanish).

I figure “more practice”, head home, watch six videos in Spanish and write out words I don’t know and develop techniques for memorizing them, and it occurs to me that vocabulary really isn’t the problem, the actual problem is self-doubt.

 

A possible fix: However grateful I am for my schooling, I have to recognize that, sadly, one of its purposes was (and remains) to suck out a lot of our confidences. Realize that the problem isn’t a lack of practice or a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of mindfulness. I should focus on this sort of mental discipline as much as sheer rote-learning when preparing for language exchange events.

 

  1. I dwell on past failures for far too long, even though I know I shouldn’t

 

Some of you know this about me, but concerning events especially I have a photographic memory.

Sadly, one thing this has done is that I remember almost every time a native speaker has put me down / answered me in English / I’ve been tongue tied or unable to form a sentence / something bad was said or written about me / I couldn’t think of the right word / I didn’t live up to my standards.

I even took a year-long break from Spanish because of thoughts like these.

 

A possible fix: realize that a lot of the being answered in English bits were due to (1) insecurity on behalf of the native speaker (2) a contract (in which they may be required to speak your native language) (3) in which the native speaker has too much of his or her native language in the home or at work and wants a change (I’m okay using other languages if necessary) (4) habit (look, if you met the person before you could manage their language well enough, be easy on yourself! They may be used to communicating with you in the language you met them in)

For the other concerns, see the possible fix in (3), above.

 

  1. I often put more stock in other people’s opinions of me, my progress and my work than my own opinions thereof.

 

This, again, has to do with schooling and grades.

There is one good thing to this, though: if I get validated or complimented or being told I speak “fluent” or “wonderful” (insert language here), I feel an extraordinary confidence rush. Thankfully this has been happening more and more.

A possible fix: I’ve been used to discounting my own opinions as invalid (also perhaps something to do with my schooling), now I just have to do this to my own negative opinions. This has to be called a “one-sided optimistic bulldozer”.

Truly a worthy investment on your part, too.