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On speaking uncommon languages abroad and at home

April 12, 2012

As an English and French speaker in Japan, I enjoyed being able to have private conversations in public places without worrying that someone would overhear or eavesdrop. As a Japanese speaker in Boston, I liked speaking Japanese with visiting friends and gaining a similar layer of privacy even on the T. Speaking English in Paris attracted tourists like a magnet and therefore lost a lot of its appeal. Being an English speaker in affluent parts of Israel doesn’t allow the same level of privacy due to the comparatively excellent English skills the majority of people seem to possess and the large communities of native English speakers in the American-founded city where I lived. But being a Hebrew speaker (or as I prefer to label myself, a Hewbrew comprehender) in a place where the nearest Jewish community is three hours away is a whole new experience.

Since returning to the U.S., and thanks to living in a relatively harmless bubble of conservative Christian America where few people harbor ill will toward Israel or Israelis, it feels safe to speak Hebrew. This stands in stark contrast to Paris, where my husband’s employer instructed him not to speak or read Hebrew in public due to the comparatively prevalent issues of anti-Semitism. In Israel, we preferred to speak English together most days in order to stave off the steady deterioration of his communication skills, which suffered greatly (but have since bounced back admirably) since he had no reason to speak English except with me. In the U.S., we’re aiming to maintain my fluency in Hebrew, such as it is, and hopefully improve it significantly.

To that end, my husband does his best to speak Hebrew to me at a natural pace, trying hard to phrase things literally so I don’t get lost in idioms, though it’s a struggle for him to avoid word play that sails far over my head. He claims to be impressed with my listening comprehension, and given how reluctant he is to praise my Hebrew skills, I feel pretty good about it too. There are moments when I fail in epic ways — the other day he had just gotten home, exhausted and sweaty, and was talking about how he’d been at the חדר כושר (cheder kosher). For some reason my brain processed this as cheder = room and kosher = kosher. I got the first word right, but in Hebrew, of all languages, kosher doesn’t mean “kosher.” In Hebrew, “kosher” (as in kosher food) is כשר (kasher), and kosher means something like “fitness.” That makes cheder kosher the gym, not a mysterious kosher room. Oops.

Now that my Hebrew has advanced to this modest but serviceable (most of the time) point, I’m reminded of my final weeks living in Boston before moving to Israel. I sold a lot of things before leaving rather than putting stuff in storage, and one couple who came to buy some furniture excused themselves for a moment to discuss details between them. “Please excuse us. We’re going to speak Hebrew now,” the woman said. “That’s fine,” I replied, surprised at how small the world can feel sometimes. “I hope someday I’ll be able to speak it too.”

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