Friday, January 3, 2014

Language Learning

When we first got to Israeli, I started an intensive Hebrew language course. For 4 weeks, I went to class every day for 2.5 hours of private instruction. Some days I even had an afternoon outing in Hebrew. I think my justification for doing this had two parts - it would keep me from getting bored and it would make it easier to find a job. I'm not sure if I really believed that knowing Hebrew would help with the job search, but I figured that it couldn't hurt.

Anyway, the plan was to take this course, look for a job, and maybe return to the course if my job search didn't bear fruit. Alas, I was lucky and started a job not too long after the course finished. I figured that I would come back to Hebrew "in a month or two," once I'd gotten my feet on the ground at my job. Work even offered to pay a bit for me to take classes. Eventually, the "maybe next month" turned into a full year of me not taking any Hebrew. Then one of the more powerful features of the foreign service came to the rescue - time.

If there's one thing that makes the foreign service life both terrible and amazing, it's the limited time that you have at post. I was able to use this to my advantage by telling myself that if I wanted to learn Hebrew more than just menu reading, then I'd have to actually commit to it, which would mean investing time (and money) in courses. Since I had had a good experience with the private lessons the previous year, I signed up for private lessons twice a week in the morning, for 2.5 hours. (Yes, my employer is amazing for supporting me with this...)

The first month was great - I was surprised by how much I remembered from the previous year, and the newness of it made it exciting. The second month was also good, but my head was swimming with all of the vocabulary that I couldn't possibly remember. The third month was tough - with anything, you start to plateau with how much you can absorb.

Part of what made the third month so hard is I started to really understand how little I know. I mean, it seems obvious, but when you're doing great in your little private lessons it's easy to forget the breadth of a language. What brought me back down to reality was an hour long conversation over Facebook with my Spanish teach/great friend from El Salvador. As we talked in Spanish, I loved how easily the Spanish thoughts flowed to me (something that doesn't happen in Hebrew) and then I also remembered how even though I can have great conversations in Spanish, I still struggle with understanding people with different accents and I struggle with stories that people tell when I can't get the context. It's much worse in Hebrew.

Anyway, I powered through and finished up the 3 months of classes. Every 2 weeks I had to write a story to share with others at a 'graduation' lunch and so I decided that I would spend a bit more time on the story for my last week. The story itself is like something a 2nd grader would write, but it does use present, past, and future tenses. I'm definitely proud of the progress I've made, even though it's highly likely that I'll never speak Hebrew well enough to have a conversation with a cab driver.

So now I'm wondering what's next. First - I need to get people at work to start speaking to me in Hebrew more. Second - I need to work on my comprehension. Getting people at work to talk to me is hard, mainly because I have to find the right people to talk to. There are those who are supportive, patient, and find good ways to help me improve and then there are those who find ways to denigrate my Hebrew - so, my plan is to identify the jerks and avoid Hebrew with them :). To kickstart my Hebrew-at-work, I agreed to read my little Hebrew story in front of everyone at work (30 people). It was a bit scary, but hopefully worth it (thanks to Michal for encouraging me to do it!). On the comprehension front, many have suggested watching TV (something I really don't do, even in English) so I think I'll start watching X-Factor, Prisoners of War (חטופים - the original Homeland). I may also take a co-worker up on his offer to lend me some of his kid's books. We'll see.

How bout you? How do you stay motivated to learn a new language?


  1. I can't imagine learning a language in addition to Spanish! I think this is about as tough as I can manage. It's hard to stay motivated ... working locally sort of forced me to speak and hear (and improve, I think) my Spanish. Working at the embassy is mixed, sometimes I speak a lot of Spanish and some days I don't at all. I also thought when I first moved here that I would -- in addition to private lessons and embassy lessons -- continue to do Rosetta Stone and all the various online resources I learned about at FSI. Not so much!

    1. Yup - it's definitely hard to force yourself to use it when it's so easy to just speak English - that's a big reason why I had a tutor in El Salvador... not so much to learn but to force me to use it (and because she was awesome).

      Unfortunately, Hebrew will overwrite Spanish frequently so we try to have "Spanish Dinners" with Spanish speaking friends to keep it active. It usually comes back quickly. That said, it did take me a while to come up with 'hacer' the other day because Hebrew 'to do' kept popping up in my head.

      I think learning Hebrew has been much, much easier than learning Spanish when it comes to sentence structure and understanding & accepting quirks of the language. I'm much less likely to put up a fight when I think something is odd since I know that fighting it doesn't change anything. When I learned Spanish, I remember feeling very viscerally annoyed when it came to differences between English and Spanish.

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