Learn a Bit Before You Go Posted by Malachi Rempen on Jun 13, 2016 in Language Learning
When I travel to a country with a culture that’s different from my own by a considerable margin, I like to learn a bit of the language before going.
I should do it with everywhere I travel, but I don’t. I just got back from a week in Madrid and Lisbon, but I just didn’t feel the need to revisit my Spanish or crack open a Portuguese lesson. I immediately regretted it when, within my first hour there, ordering a steak in a local restaurant became an overwhelming trial of frustration, embarrassment and pity. It’s common sense that you should pick up at least a few phrases, greetings and general helpful remarks like “I don’t speak your language, please treat me as you would the village idiot” before traveling somewhere, but I felt too good for it, and I paid the price.
The reason is, I felt Iberian culture to be familiar enough already. I studied Spanish for ten years in school growing up, spent a few family vacations in the south of Spain as a kid, and took a trip to Portugal in 2013. I felt I had a grip on the people, the personality of the place, the cultural vibe. I do have that grip, but I just couldn’t order a damn steak.
However, as I said, when I know the culture is going to be considerably different from my own, I like to learn a bit of the language.
In 2015, I took a family trip to Israel. Despite my very Old Testament name, I’m not Jewish, but Jewish culture and the Hebrew language has always fascinated me. My close friends in elementary school were Jewish, and both my high school girlfriends were Jewish, so I went to a lot of bar mitzvahs and hanukkahs and ate far more than my fair share of latkes and matzo ball soup. I used to be jealous that my friends had to read from the Torah at their bar mitzvahs – they had the key to this secret, cool-looking code that was the written Hebrew language. They hated it, but I loved it.
So before this trip to Israel I spent a few weeks doing some listen-and-repeat Hebrew lessons. I figured I’d get a bit of insight into the culture and a neat window into the kind of people that lived in this place and spoke this language. As the comic above demonstrates, all I really managed to do was embarrass myself, but in my defense, the gendered verbs sound a LOT alike.
But there was a definite thrill to understanding even a little bit of what everyone was saying. Sure, I was only really understanding that they were saying “no” or “yes” or “today” or “here,” but that was enough to make me feel like more than just another tourist. It made me feel like I had cracked open the window of their world and was poking my head inside, ever so briefly.
Question for you readers: what do Hebrew speakers (and anyone else with verbs dependent on the subject’s gender) do when faced with someone whose gender is unsure? Or someone who identifies with a different gender than might seem immediately obvious? It’s hard enough in English with “he” and “she” being too restrictive for some people, but in Hebrew it’s a whole other ball game. Is it just that much more awkward?