November 15, 2021.
During the first week of school, the janitor told me and Melissa (the other teaching fellow) a long story in Hebrew. We didn’t understand a word of it…even with his accompanying hand gestures. His hand gestures were even so extreme that at times it almost felt like we were playing charades, not just having a conversation. I stumbled my way through saying “אני לא מדברת עברית (ani lo medaberet ivrit)” (I don’t speak Hebrew), but that didn’t stop him.
As he continued to speak in Hebrew, you can imagine our surprise when he suddenly broke into song (in Italian). Melissa and I legitimately got serenaded in the teacher’s lounge, and we don’t even know why it happened because we didn’t understand the story. Finally, one of the teachers explained to us that he was saying how much he loves Italian music, and she told him that we were English teachers and didn’t understand Hebrew.
Since that first week, we continued to have entire “conversations” every time he sees me. He tells me long stories in Hebrew, somehow expecting me to know what he’s saying. He always speaks slowly and simply for me, and of course uses those over-exaggerated hand gestures. He never gives up until I understand (or at least pretend to).
I can tell my Hebrew is improving though, because now I understand about 40% of his stories. So far, I’ve learned that his friend lives in America and got robbed twice since being there, and that he thinks he is much stronger than President Biden even though they’re the same age. At the start of the school year, I couldn’t even imagine getting to a place where I understood one full sentence in Hebrew, and now here I am, sort of getting by in a conversation.
I didn’t get to this point without effort, though. I have fully accepted my nerd status as a try-hard in my Hebrew classes. I study my vocabulary on the bus and before bed. I practice any chance I get. It takes time and energy, but everytime I successfully ask for an English menu or order falafel or understand how much my groceries cost, it feels like a huge win.
The first time I practiced speaking Hebrew with a stranger was in a taxi in Tel Aviv. The driver spoke some English, but I was determined to use as much Hebrew in the conversation as possible. He was patient and kind as I took way too long to form a couple broken, grammatically incorrect sentences. Even though I spoke horribly, I really tried and learned from the experience.
I’m beginning to realize that I can’t be a perfectionist as I learn a new language; in fact, I need to do the opposite. I literally have to make mistakes. I can’t learn how to speak a language by studying words and phrases and suddenly speaking it perfectly in conversation. I learn by stumbling through those awkward sentences and pronunciations.
Sometimes I’ll say the wrong thing and people will laugh, but it’s okay because so will I. It’s actually really funny sometimes. Just last week, I accidentally told someone (in Hebrew) that I don’t speak English (to which he responded in English saying “It sounds like you speak English pretty well”). It’s moments like this where all I can do is laugh at myself and do better next time. My favorite Hebrew slip-up of all time, however, was when my roommate said her favorite snack was d*ck instead of olives. It really happens to all of us, and it’s okay. I would much rather speak terrible, broken Hebrew than never try to speak it at all.
I see now that learning Hebrew is doing more for me than just adding a language to my resume, or helping me get by in a foreign country. It’s teaching me to let go of some of my perfectionism, to be more patient, and to laugh at myself. I’m also learning to celebrate the small wins, because that’s how progress is made. Nobody learns to speak a language fluently overnight, but little by little I will get closer. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll understand the janitor’s stories without the hand gestures.