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?

 

Polyglot Report Card, for September 2014 (Part 1)

I hereby take the time to reflect on where I am in my various language journeys, where I could improve, if I am falling back, and what plans I may have.

I will be as honest with myself as I can.

First off, I should begin with English, my native language, the one that you are probably reading this article in.

usa

I actually have a significant problem with speaking English, more than I had expected (surprise, surprise!!!)

In no small part does this have to do with the fact that I had seen my American accent as something to “get rid of” and/or disguise (In my experience, Israelis and Swiss have “American radars” that are very difficult to fool, Germans are about average difficulty, Greeks above-average difficulty, Scandinavians below-average difficulty, and the easiest time I had disguising my accent was among Americans [no big surprise there]).

Not only that, I still pepper my English with some foreign expressions (mostly from German, Finnish or assorted Scandinavian, mostly Danish), and I have to force an American accent most of the time. I should have foreseen this outcome: I kept this side to me so actively bottled up that when I need it to fit in, it still won’t come out, even with effort!

That isn’t even to mention the fact that sometimes I speak English with the sentence structure of other languages, German being the worst offender and Greenlandic a close second .

(For those of you interested in what “speaking English with Greenlandic sentence structure is”, it is when I pause at various points in the sentence depending on when the words would break off…and Greenlandic words are very long indeed… An example: “there is my computer on the table” would be “on the table…my computer is there”.  )

What I intend to do: immerse. Immerse, immerse, immerse. Do I really have to resume watching television in my native language? Has it really come this far? We’ll see…

Next up is Yiddish, the first non-English language that I genuinely felt I became good with…

idishflag

Deitschmerish (the mixing of German and Yiddish) had become a bigger problem than I had anticipated. Mental discipline was enough for me to prevent myself from speaking Deitschmerish most of the time, but at the end of the day I may need to refresh some vocabulary, a process that is WAY long overdue…

The words of the holy tongue (loshn-koydesh) really dealt me the opportunity for my Yiddish to “hold its own”.  Thanks also to German and being constantly cognizant of the differences between German and Yiddish (and Dutch figures into this somehow as well…), I was capable of “slacking off” without practicing and still being able to maintain most conversations. But I really shouldn’t be lazy…but it seems that I came to the right city to practice this language!

As to German, this is the one language I had struggled the most with, and I had difficulty having a conversation in German until about March/April 2014 (at that point I had been living in Germany for a year). Sometimes I also felt very self-conscious, not also to mention my nagging desire to love understudied languages more (gotta live with that…).

I had encountered SO much discouragement and so many roadblocks and reflections and bouts of self-conscious worrying to get to that point, but luckily I have had more than enough success stories with conversational German (during my last semester) for me to be confident now. And now is what counts the most.

deutschland

Thanks largely to my “Deunglisch”, I may need to give spoken German a break for a while…but given how many written materials in German are in the library in which I am currently writing this blogpost, I think I can manage some other skill developments.

And now for Team Scandinavia, and I’ll try to be quick:

norden

Swedish: Depending on who I am with, I can either speak Swedish very confidently or sometimes I’ll worry a lot. I think part of this comes from the “fear of being answered in English” that I had to put up with in Stockholm during my learning phases (my fear of being answered in English in Germany shrank to next to nothing, even when I was there only for a few weeks…)

In all of my languages, I am constantly building vocabulary (even with English, thanks largely to the bizarre Faroese vocabulary lists filled with culinary…um…intrigue?). Even better: when I look at a word in one of the Scandinavian Languages, I’ll compare it to the other two. This works wonders for my memory, interestingly.

The “sj” sound is more natural now than I ever thought that it would be, but I feel as though it will never be perfect (one time I got it down just right! The way a native speaker would!)

Television has worked wonders for me mastering the rhythm of the Swedish Language, I just imagine how certain characters would say the words that I’m thinking (with my musical muscle-memory) and then I duplicate that rhythm. This has never failed me.

What I should do: (1) keep on the journey and (2) realize that I worry too much and (3) stop worrying so much. I’m not a beginner struggling to order cinnamon buns anymore.  That was nearly two years ago.

Danish: My Greenlandic and Faroese adventures have required me to bolster my ability to read Danish and it really shows when I can read a text out loud without flinching. The Stød is now very natural for me, but sometimes I’m still self-conscious about what many Danes might think of my accent (or sometimes even the fact that I chose to learn the language, or that I have this thing for the Danish colonies).

Encountering a group of Danes in the NYC subway system the other day, it occurred to me that, in comparison to many languages, Danish, as spoken by native speakers, isn’t spoken very quickly.

I have two primary goals with Danish: (1) learn slang better (as I may need them to learn Greenlandic and Faroese slang) and (2) stop worrying so much about what native speakers might think if I open my mouth. Come to think of it, I haven’t received discouragement for learning either Danish or Norwegian. From anyone.

Norwegian: Now that I look back over the past year, it is clear that I have spent the smallest amount of time with Norwegian.  

Not surprisingly, I can read Norwegian articles very well (thanks to the whole Danish/Norwegian being very similar). I feel a lot more confident with my accent in Norwegian than I am with either of the other two Scandinavian Languages in question, and I’ve fooled many a non-Norwegian into thinking that I was from the country when I let loose a few words.

I really try not to play favorites with my projects, but I still find that Norwegian is the most beautiful language in my collection and I should use that as a motivation to maintain it.

After all, I really find that I have the least anxiety about Norwegian, but I really wish that I could speak it more often with real people. But hey, I’m in New York right?

And last but not least among my conversational languages…

suomi

I had pumped so many hours into Finnish and I’m proud of it. I’m a far cry from being seen as a Native speaker with higher education, but I’m okay with having a good command of the casual language. From my time in Finland (back in November 2013 when I felt that I really didn’t know it that well), it seems that Finns are readily impressed by genuine foreigner attempts to learn their language (when I write “their language”, I am also being cognizant of the Fennoswedes).

But thanks largely to Finnish being very far from English, I don’t get lots of vocabulary “for free” the way I do with the Germanic or the Romance Languages. I have to maintain the language with extra effort. If that means watching more TV in Finnish than devoting it to other ones, then so be it.

Right now I’d really like to use Finnish to strengthen Estonian and Northern Sami. It would also be interesting for the day in which I take Hungarian very seriously.

My biggest weakness with Finnish? I sometimes struggle with the written language. More than I should. Wikipedia obviously isn’t a problem in this regard, but some other written material is, including, surprisingly, internet comments…

Next time I will write about the almost-conversational languages in part 2!

Why Yiddish is Worth Your Time

Shulem-Aleikhem, Raboysai!

One thing I really like about the United States (and many other areas of North America) is the fact that I usually don’t have to explain what Yiddish is. But in Europe, with some exceptions such as Poland (where the language is widely studied), usually I find myself having to tell people what Yiddish is.

In Germany in particular I hear things like “it sounds like a dialect I can understand sometimes, but that I don’t speak”, “sounds Bavarian”, “sounds Bohemian”, and sometimes, “I had no clue it sounded so similar to German!”

Sometimes I also get “how many people speak it?” (one consistent question I get with a lot of my under-studied languages), and it is very difficult to place a decent estimate, even if you are UNESCO incarnate.

What is even more interesting is that, given how many people study the language, I find myself having more conversations in Yiddish in many unexpected places than in most of the other languages I speak.

I would venture a guess that the two most popularly studied endangered languages today would be Yiddish and Irish (the latter of which I haven’t studied yet, although I’ve tried several times and intend to try again…probably when Duolingo’s Irish course is finally out…).

Millions of students across the globe study Yiddish, even those with no connection to Germanic Languages or Jewish culture at all. If you need some encouragement for Yiddish learning, you’ve come to the right place:

Image

The extraordinary wealth of untranslated literature in the language means that you can potentially turn your interest in the Yiddish Language into something very lucrative indeed. Aaron Lansky, the legendary visionary behind the National Yiddish Book Center, often notes that well over 90% of Yiddish literature is not yet translated into English.

Who could uncover the next platinum ray of literary light that would emanate from this mysterious canon? Perhaps it could be you!

Yiddish’s similarity to English, in its sentence structure, vocabulary, and even some of its idioms—will be something that is more likely to come to you easily if you speak anything else in the Germanic Language family, especially English or any of the Scandinavian Languages. If you are American in particular, most Yiddish songs will make you think “I’ve heard that somewhere before!” and many Yiddishisms will carry more than just a whiff of familiarity.

The one thing that may make Yiddish difficult for you could be the Loshn-koydeshdike verter, the words from Hebrew and Aramaic, which carry historical pronunciation (each word has a unique pronunciation that must be learned separately). If you have ever spent time in an Orthodox Jewish environment, chances are you know a lot of these words already, even if you might know many of them with a more Sephardic-sounding pronunciation.

Despite these hang-ups, the idea that Yiddish is “easy” carries some weight. All prepositions take the Dative case (one primary difference between Yiddish and German)

However, the literary depths of the Yiddish Language will require many odd contexts to be learned, and some unexpected gems will surprise you in every which way. Be prepared to consult fellow translators or to outsource your confusions to Facebook in the oddest of cases. Yiddishists do this very frequently, as anyone who is connected to them on Social Networks will tell you!

All languages are not just ways of speaking (ask any polyglot at all!)—they are also ways of life. This holds true with Yiddish most spectacularly of all. As I heard from one of my professors, “The Yiddish Language is not a Politically Correct Language”

Another one told me “Google Translate supports all civilized languages, and even Yiddish, which isn’t so civilized” That’s a bit harsh—not civilized, definitely not. Attitude? Maybe. Edgy? Most definitely…but in a good way!

The German Language’s usage often seems tame in comparison to the no-holds-barred black humor utilized with a Yiddish soul. Some may deride it as the “language of the ghetto”, but once you learn Yiddish to a significant degree, your life is changed…

…the songs that you learn will stay with you—even if you can’t remember the tunes, the music will remain…

…it will make you more daring, it will heighten your emotional senses, it will give you a “cool” aura.

Most importantly, it will connect you with the soul of a people, one that has produced the most “densely populated” literary outpouring in all of human history, one that is begging for translators—and one that is asking for your support and your time…

A world with little worlds awaits! So what are you waiting for?