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Cheese and lemonade

March 14, 2011

Whenever an unfamiliar word is spoken, my brain instinctively wants to compare it to all the words I already know and choose the one it most resembles. The associations formed this way are a great tool to remember new words, but they also cause occasional ridiculous communication failures of mammoth proportions.

For example, the fridge in my department at work is always stuffed full the beginning of the week when everyone brings a bunch of food to get them through five days worth of hunger and being stuck at their desks through lunch and sometimes dinner too. Skillfully and considerately rearranging the contents is necessary almost every time it’s opened. Today I juggled and nearly dropped a container of something I didn’t recognize. The owner of the container helped me catch it, and in the process I asked what was in it.

「ラムネ」、 he replied.

Or so my brain tried to convince me.

“It’s fantastic on pita. Try some.”

This led to confusion, as ラムネ (ramune, a Japanese interpretation of the word lemonade) usually comes in very distinctively shaped little bottles, is not eaten with pita, and – of course – we weren’t in Japan.

My coworker figured out I had misunderstood from the look on my face and went on to explain that this container was full of a soft Arab cheese. It turns out he had said לאבנה (labneh). As someone who generally avoids cheese, I’ve never encountered the stuff before.

This highlighted one of my initial problems with Hebrew that I thought had silently faded away for good. My Hebrew education began after I’d studied Japanese intensively for many years and lived in Japan for most of that time. Friends and family often joked about how my way of speaking slowly changed, and that my Midwestern accent completely vanished in place of a neutral, perfectly enunciated version of English that doesn’t actually exist in America. And unfortunately, another unexpected side effect of living in Japan turned out to be a complete inability to differentiate between r and l in new languages – namely Hebrew.

When my Israeli husband-then-boyfriend started casually teaching me simple words and phrases a few years ago, he was horrified that I couldn’t hear any difference whatsoever between lamed and reish, the l and r sounds in Hebrew, especially when they weren’t at the beginning of a word. I almost invariably inverted them. He was convinced learning Japanese and living in Japan had ruined me, linguistically speaking. For about a year he was right – I was pretty hopeless.

By now I’ve figured it out for the most part, but it wasn’t easy. Today’s confusion was like a flashback to those days of proudly saying something ridiculous like todah laba or sricha and being so sad and confused when people laughed.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2011 10:26 am

    That thing about your English changing after years in Japan is interesting. I totally believe it.

    You know the best word I discovered to demonstrate the lack of “l” or “r” in the Japanese language while on a job with American clients and Japanese staff? “Bling, bling”. You can probably imagine how that was attempted by the Japanese. 🙂

    I’m glad you got the lamed and the reish down, I think it’s going to take me a while!

    • March 20, 2011 7:18 pm

      How did “bling bling” come up in a business context? Sounds like an entertaining job 🙂

      Good luck with the lamed/reish thing! I’ve never felt so hopeless with anything related to pronunciation in any language compared to those two letters.

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