Hebrew for the Illiterate

My Israeli coworker and I are speaking in English when suddenly something that sounds like “moder tong” comes out of her mouth. I rake my brain, trying to figure out exactly what she means.  She sees my confusion and backtracks, more carefully enunciating the words, “mother tongue.” I laughed, realizing how funny it must seem that I can converse fluently in Hebrew only to be baffled when an English term is used. It’s not uncommon—English is used by Israelis on a daily basis, with some terms overtaking their Hebrew counterparts.  Upon my saying something was a “kotz ba tachat” (pain in the ass), my coworker laughed and said Israelis never used the phrase.  I asked her what they used instead and she replied “pain in the ass.”

The language shifts between Hebrew and English suit me relatively well, though (despite the occasional difficulty in realizing when the shifts are made). Thinking back on my upbringing, it’s unclear as to whether English or Hebrew was my own mother tongue.  I grew up hearing and speaking Hebrew at home as my family had immigrated to the United States shortly before my birth.  I also grew up hearing and speaking English, as I was put into daycare very shortly after I was born because my parents had to work to get by in their new country.

My English is unquestionably better than my Hebrew now.  It is the language of the country I grew up in, the language I was educated in, and the language I use most during the course of my day. Nevertheless, as a child in middle and high school, I felt my Hebrew was quite good.  I was fluent in it and could easily hold conversations without trouble.  But as I grew older, I realized the limitation of my Hebrew.

My ability to converse depends on the topic of discussion as my vocabulary is limited to certain subjects.  Politics, economics, law, science, and medicine are all beyond my vocabulary.  Realistically, my family didn’t read me books about “iron domes” or sing me tunes about “economic recessions.”  Criminal law, elections, stem-cell research, abortion, political scandals, social justice, prisoner exchanges, and the newest vaccinations against common viruses were not common topics of conversation at dinner.  But twenty-two years into my life, these more serious subjects are very prevalent in society and my life.

The most frustrating part of knowing that my vocabulary is lacking is the difficulty I have in expanding it. I once heard that children learning languages store the information in a particular part of their brain while adults learning languages store the information in a different part of the brain. While I cannot confirm the statement’s veracity, the concept interests me no less.  It may help explain why new Hebrew vocabulary words are hard for me to remember.

But I want to improve my Hebrew.  I want to be able to read and write it—to be honest, it’s a little strange to think of myself as illiterate.  Since arriving in Israel, I’ve been working on my reading and writing on my own.  I picked up a youth book at a second hand bookstore and have been writing notes to my parents here and there.  But it’s been difficult.  One of the hardest things is coming across English terms that are transliterated into Hebrew (“The North Face” ד’ה נורט פייס?—come on!)  But, after realizing how common it is, it’s a little easier to catch when reading.

Luckily, I’ve seen a definite improvement in my Hebrew reading and writing over the past couple of months.  I can read simple things without vowels and can even write a little bit—with tons of spelling errors, sure, but something is better than nothing, right?  At this point, I can only hope that maybe one day I’ll be able to write a post like this in Hebrew.


2 thoughts on “Hebrew for the Illiterate

  1. I’ve had experience teaching English as a “second” langauge to newly arrived Vietnamese children, but what you describe is such a complicated, many times more folded over situation. Thank you for spelling out (pun intended!) the quandry of one such as yourself. Doing “Career Israel” has another benefit added to its long lists of amazing attributes.

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