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?

 

The Polyglot Barrrrr!

Good thing I forgot to write this yesterday, otherwise I would have realized the wonderful title opportunity too late. (Happy International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day! Arr! True story: I first heard about International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day through a Playbill for the New York City Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance)

The second time at the NYC Polyglot Bar didn’t nearly have as many Yiddish speakers, with German- and Spanish-speakers dominating instead (although Yiddish did have a significant presence).

Apparently there was someone who interviewed me for a story. More on that later, because this post is about my reflections from Wednesday Night:

  • I remember Ernest Hemingway having noted that in every port of the world there are at least two Estonians.

 

No Estonians were present at this gathering, and I was the only Estonian-speaker present, but there were at least six other people who said that they knew/lived with/met with one Estonian (or more).

 

Some things don’t change…

 

  • This time I wasn’t the only speaker of a Native American Language present (there was a Quechua speaker who was very intrigued by Greenlandic. True story: if I were on the 2013 Peru trip with my family instead of in a German Village, I probably would speak Quechua very well by now. But I didn’t, so I had other interests. Maybe one day…who knows?)

 

  • Nor was I the only speaker of a Scandinavian Language present. There was a fellow Danish-speaker present as well. Fairly interesting: he found Swedish and Norwegian quite elusive (given as he didn’t study either of them), despite the fact that these languages are so similar. So similar, in fact, that I made a discovery this week that the singing voice of “The Little Mermaid” was done by the same person (Sissel Kyrkjebø, a Norwegian singer) in the Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish dubs.

 

  • While on the topic of Scandinavian Languages, I had my tag on and I was speaking in Hebrew with a colleague on the subway on the way back. Apparently I got asked by someone leaving the subway if I spoke all of those languages. That someone was a Swede, who was extraordinarily overjoyed that her mother tongue was on my tag. And you can probably guess what language the remainder of that conversation was in (hint: not English)

 

  • My command of Danish and German I felt was strong, I wasn’t grasping for words although I might have slipped up some grammar points (did that in English, too). Yiddish was slightly weaker but still good (despite one time in which I misheard something and answered a completely irrelevant question). My Spanish and Hebrew leave a lot to be desired. Specifically, I felt myself pausing too often and making grammatical mistakes more than I would in any of my comfortable languages. Confidence, too, was an issue. My ability to understand everything in all four of these languages was perfect, however. There were at most three words that I missed between the four as far as the conversations went.

 

  • One nickname I got was “the guy with the Faroese book”. It made its appearance when people asked me how I learned the language. Obviously the book wasn’t the only thing.

 

  • The Northern Sami phrasebook also seemed to be quite popular. Interestingly, nobody asked me to speak any of it. The one language I get most commonly asked to speak for people to hear is, obviously, Greenlandic.

 

  • Apparently someone told me that spoken Dutch sounds like someone talking with a potato stuffed in his or her mouth. Any Scandinavian will definitely recognize this idea as having been applied one-too-many-times to refer to the Danish Language. Asked to say something about Danish, I recalled the not particularly politically correct observation of one of my German colleagues that “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

 

  • Portuguese and Dutch were a lot better off than Spanish and Hebrew. I made significant progress with both ever since I got back to the United States. I’m at a point where if I don’t have enough media of both in my life, however, my knowledge of both will lapse significantly. I was told with both that my accent is really good (heard the same for Yiddish).

 

  • I was asked what my favorite language is. I gave an answer in multiple capacities. That is a post for another time.

 

  • Got asked my favorite language for cursing. This one I can give: Finnish. Without a doubt. I’m not going to teach you any Finnish bad words here. Send me a private message or, better yet, meet me at a polyglot event. But if you know me in person and spent any time around me, you’ll definitely recognize a few (unfortunately, I tend to use them quite frequently when agitated).

 

  • Now here’s the biggest improvement: I wasn’t mixing up any German and Yiddish this time! Boom! But while German/Yiddish and Swedish/Norwegian are out of the picture, now I have a new culprit: Spanish and Portuguese. Who knew?

 

There were some people who took my picture / interviewed me / asked me questions etc. Quite exciting! If anything comes of such things, they will make their way to this blog in due time.

 

Anyhow, a diagnostic on what I need to do from this time until the next:

 

  • Make Spanish and Hebrew television a part of my life, and keep it that way until I feel that I get good with both. I did this with the Scandinavian Languages for the past year and I don’t regret it one bit. Now I have to do the same for the languages I learned in school.

 

  • To a lesser extent, given as I have only recently gotten quite good with both Dutch and Portuguese, I need to cement their “entrance into the echelons” with media as well, and training myself to think in these languages in all situations.

 

 

  • My skills in Russian, Polish and Northern Sami really, REALLY leave a lot of room for improvement. I’m not even close to conversational anymore, and a lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve neglected them for other buddies. Plan 1: Ođđasat (the News in Northern Sami) every day. Plan 2: Bring back the Russian and Polish Music. Plan 3: Don’t skim the Russian and Polish posts on Facebook. Plan 4: don’t shy away form Slavic YouTubing. Plan 5: Don’t neglect my Nothern Sami Notes (from Gulahalan, etc).

 

  • Now it comes for a time for me to really wonder: how many languages do I actually have time for? Do I have time for learning a new one? Can I actually maintain close to twenty languages and be ready to converse in them readily on a casual level? Will people even believe me? Will people doubt my resume?

 

My local friends (and many others) tell me that I can definitely manage this, and already I seem to have skewed the odds in my favor by choosing languages in various family groups (Scandinavian / West Germanic / Finnic / Romance Languages).

 

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll know when it will be time to drop one of my language projects when I fall out in love with it.

 

For now, however, I won’t stop my new acquisitions. And if the day comes in which I lose my attachment to one of my projects, then I will find no major problem with letting them go (I could relearn them whenever I want, and a “good head start” will certainly be useful should I choose that path).

 

But I’ve noticed that one video a day in various languages is usually enough for me to ensure that I don’t forget anything (or…as much). And the journey of learning new vocabulary never stops…not even for my native language…

 

For that matter, my journey of peering into new worlds won’t stop either…