THE BLOG

Tower of Babble

03/05/2013 11:16 am ET | Updated May 05, 2013
  • Julie Gray Writer, Editor, Media Literacy Advocate

Recently I began to study in Israel's famed Ulpan Hebrew immersion classes. There are those who say that Hebrew isn't that difficult to learn but they are liars.

Hebrew is an ancient West Semitic Afroasiatic language, which is a fancy way of saying that it reads from right to left and uses an alphabet that looks to an American like something you'd make using a potato and some non-toxic paint or use in an ad in Vanity Fair for a priceless objet d'art of vaguely Oriental provenance.

Sources vary but Hebrew is spoken by more or less 9 million people on the entire planet. Jesus did not speak Hebrew, he spoke Aramaic, according to Mel Gibson but whatever. After 200 CE, Hebrew was no longer used in common, every day life. It became the language of liturgy and ancient texts. After the creation of Israel in 1948, Hebrew was revived from the dead and new words were created for things like "pencil" "bus" and "chiffon blouse." Many words were simply borrowed from other languages. Ergo "sweater" is "schvedder" and brakes are "breks."

The real beauty of Hebrew is that there are 12,000 pronouns encompassing every gender, situation and possible object of a sentence. No, no, I'm kidding, there are only 10,000 pronouns.

One is mostly able to function without speaking, reading or writing Hebrew in modern day Israel. Which makes it harder to bother learning because it doesn't take more than 15 seconds of a bungled request for some fresh squeezed orange juice for the vendor to sympathetically just complete the order for you in English, saving him time and you further embarrassment.

Initially, living in Israel and not speaking or understanding Hebrew was a kind of gift. I sat on the bus in a peaceful bubble of mute and deaf reverie. Even when someone yelled at me about something, I could only register displeasure but not take offense at the probable epithets included. Not speaking Hebrew was rather pleasant, most times.

Yes, I have brought home strange foodstuffs from the grocery store, and mixed things incorrectly because of the potato print language on the box I could not read but tried, rather, to intuit. The television news is absolutely a lost cause but game shows, I found, were almost as fun to watch as those in my own language, since one need not understand just exactly why a contestant is jumping up and down screaming, but merely that they are.

One is sternly instructed to enroll in Ulpan immediately upon arriving in Israel, but instead, I decided to wait. Upside of waiting an entire year: I did absorb, however glacially, a fair amount of Hebrew vocabulary simply by dint of exposure. Downside: aforementioned strange food purchases and other embarrassing errata that do not bear mentioning here.

My class at Ulpan is comprised of three French students, four Americans, three South Africans, two South Americans, one Australian, four Brits, two Germans and a large number of Russians. The Russians formed their own subgroup immediately. Cathy from Ohio is not doing so well, having broken down in class about three times now, mostly in tears of distraught appreciation for everyone in the class. One student, I am now convinced, has Tourettes. There are at least two illicit relationships that appear to be forming. Hands across the sea and all that.

We attend class five days a week, for four-hour study sessions for a total of five months. Our teacher, a petite, good-humored, salt-of-the-earth Israeli woman is originally from Romania. She gesticulates a great deal because she has to. Her voice is hoarse from smoking and shouting adverbs.

I have proudly learned to say scintillating phrases like "I live in Tel Aviv." And "The weather is more pleasant today than it was yesterday."

Mostly I am very glad to be in Ulpan. I am ceasing being merely an observer of my surroundings and am instead becoming a part of it. Why just the other day, I noted to a stranger on the bus that her "hair was for nice today she has." She smiled patiently. Ulpan? Yes.

Learning another language had long been on my bucket list. That and playing the cello but one ground up brain rewire at a time. Most days I feel pretty terrible about the goings-on in class. Other days, I say something which appears to have been in part understood and I celebrate with a bottle of wine.

Many days, during class, pencil clutched tightly in sweaty hand, I get the creepy feeling that my brain is literally expanding in my skull. Jealously, I eye other students who repeat phrases effortlessly, with great enunciation while I garble the simplest reply as the teacher looks at me with something like pleading in her eyes. Some students won't stop talking which makes me crazy because it's not even in Hebrew so I can tune them out.

There are days when I feel angry at Hebrew. WHY does this word and that word mean the same thing?! Why on earth does Hebrew have grammatical rules that do not make sense and are not necessary? Days like that I just try to remember that this language is very old and that my own native tongue, English, is one very weird language as well. It's just that I was speaking it fairly well by age five and I could not yet vote or drive a car.

I had a dream in Hebrew the other night, an enthusiastic classmate told me recently. Well, goody for YOU, I thought but did not say. I do not dream in Hebrew, I have nightmares about Hebrew.

Slowly, my pleasant bubble of linguistic ignorance is being pierced. A world of overheard conversations is flooding in and growing in volume each day. Occasionally, street signs say things that make sense now. I now understand why the pest control guy laughed so when I asked him to repair my skirt.

But I don't like to look back.

There is a test at the end of Ulpan, or so I think I thought the teacher might have said in Hebrew at one point in time. I don't really know. How great to be fluent in another language my supportive sister said to me via email recently. If speaking at a kindergarten level is fluent, then yes, I am currently fluent.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have homework to do. Today's lesson: Things we buy at the grocery store.