Thursday, April 14, 2011

If Celine Dion only knew Hebrew

"How many languages do you speak?"
"Four. But only two when sober."
For some reason they never seem to like this answer.
"No, wait. Five," I added.
"Yes, I forgot Yiddish."
"You know Yiddish?"
"No. But German and Yiddish sound the same after three pints."
I don't know why people sigh so often when talking to me. Is it a sign of frustration, or pleasure?
"So, you speak French?"
"When sober?" they asked reluctantly.
"Definitely not when sober."
The sighs changed into a slight shaking of the head.
"Isn't French an official language in Canada?"
"Sure is. I even had about seven years of instruction in French when I went to school in Toronto."
"And you can't speak it… when sober?"
"Can't even order a cup of coffee."
Actually, in my individual case, this isn't quite true. During one Canadian summer I sat listening to French operas while following the words in the librettos. My mother would listen to the operas from the Met on the radio every Saturday afternoon and somehow it rubbed off on me. At the end of the summer I could even read a French newspaper, although I remained tongue-tied. Then, after high school, I worked for two months in a small hotel in the red light district of Rue Pigalle in Paris. This not only significantly improved my French, but managed the difficult task of stripping me of my Canadian naivety. Le petit Jesus, they called me, mainly because of my long hair and beard and the fact that I was essentially clueless.

A lot of people would have given up on me at this point, but they seemed to want to plod on for a bit more. I mean, how often do you a chance to talk with a Canadian in the middle of the Israeli desert.

"Do you add eh to the end of your sentences in French, as well?
"You know. Something like - 'Parley-vous francais, eh?'"
Luckily, at this point the Canadian sets in and not the Israeli.
"Sure," I lied, "all of the time."
I decided it was time to give them something they wanted to hear. People like that. Most people, that is. Not Israelis. They just want to argue. And if you do seem to agree with them, they will argue about that, too.

The truth is - I never started adding eh to the end of any sentences, in any language, until I had been living in Israel for over 10 years. I was getting tired of people telling me that I had lost any sign of a Canadian accent when speaking English.
"Say house."
"No, that's not it."
So, knowing that eh was a distinguishing point for Canadians, at least on the world stage, I started adding eh to the end of my sentences and that seemed to work.
But let me get back to why Canada and Israel have such a common language experience, albeit not a common language.

Arabic is an official language of Israel and French is an official language of Canada, but the vast majority of Jewish Israelis know almost no Arabic (except for cursing in Arabic as Hebrew just doesn't have the same effect), and the vast majority of English Canadians know almost no French. (They may vaguely know about half a verse of  O Canada in French, although they will totally mangle it if put to the test.) Mandatory exposure to the two languages in the school curriculum doesn't seem to help. People seem resigned to simply having the description of certain products written in both languages.

The thing is, Israelis know English much better than Arabic. Most of this, I suppose, is due to the infiltration of American culture. Israeli kids have long been exposed to English through songs on the radio, movies and programs on t.v. Celine Dion once said that she could sing songs in English as a small child, although she didn't know a word of English. And now, when the Internet has broken down geographical borders and we can easily communicate with anyone in the world, the language of global communication is now English. Celine Dion may have never learnt English, had it not been for her desire to be a growing star on the international scene.

It appears, then, that the key to successfully learning another language is motivation. And it has to be a real motivation, one that reaches into us daily. Israelis must have a certain command of English in order to enter Israeli universities. But this requirement doesn't strongly motivate young kids. They are motivated by the fact that they need English to play games on the Internet, strike up new friendships, sound cool by singing American songs, etc. And then, when they do reach university, they put in long hours improving their reading and writing skills, because this is what they need now, day to day, to reach their goals.

Without such motivation, our command of a foreign language can not make it past the drunken factor. And although we must have acquired something of the foreign language in our studies, if sufficient liquor can connect all of the dots in a way that our language teacher never could, we wouldn't want to suggest that excessive drinking is the best solution to becoming a successful language learner.

You will have probably gathered, by now, that Hebrew is my other 'sober' language, in addition to English, of course. I was strongly motivated to learn Hebrew upon arriving in this country. It was my only key of entry. Unlike many others, where being in Israel was simply a continuation of their Jewish upbringing, for me it was a totally new experience. And I felt that I had to continually prove myself. It was only when I had become fluent in Hebrew - both in speaking, reading and writing - that I no longer felt the need to prove myself. Of course, many other things were involved. But language was a major factor. 

I keep telling myself that I need to go back to learning French so that it will pass through the drunken barrier into sobriety. Not that I really need French over here. Although a French tourist does wander by now and then. Why then should I make the effort? Would a good command of French make me feel more Canadian? Everything I have said until now suggests that it wouldn't. Although I feel that it should. What do you think? Looking forward to your comments.

1 comment:

  1. I think you might want to find a way through to the French (or any other language) that you already have... and there IS a way to get at it other than through alcohol. Speaking from my own perspective I think the reason I found languages easy to learn is that I couldn't care less if I spoke it badly - as a matter of fact, paradoxically the best way to do something well is to do it badly, frequently, with gay abandon and without fear of consequence. Not caring how you look or sound is key. Coincidentally not caring about what others think is one of the only redeeming features of the passage of years.. (correct me if I'm wrong... go ahead and try!) and it imparts great freedom. So I would suggest you pick your language, impose it on every living creature on the planet with regularity and bypass alcohol (for this purpose!) altogether. Another way to improve your skills in any language is to find someone you REALLY want to communicate with - please make your own conclusions (and I know whereof I speak!)!!! As to whether your vastly improved French will make you feel more Canadian, I say how can you miss - it is the other official language, and makes everything sound better anyway - including YOU!!! ;-)