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Learn a Bit Before You Go Posted by 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.

Itchy Feet: Identity Confusion

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?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. jasmine:

    hey! an Israeli here!
    If in writing we will just put a ‘\’ and finish the sentence with the female ending, that is mostly just another or different letter to the masculine one.
    If in person it is more difficult but the thing in Israel is that people are sassy enough to just ask or just decide by there on, unless they got corrected.
    If let’s say we talk about a baby we will just say both, or speak again, in a gender we choose and say it speaks for both genders.
    FUN FACT : in job ads you will always find a little (*) in the end saying that the ad was in masculine gender but referrers for both sexes, so it won’t be open to discrimination lawsuits.

  2. Helen:

    I know that feeling of being fascinated by a foreign language, and the satisfaction of being a little more at ease in a foreign country having at least tried to crack a few of their secrets… I spent about a year learning Icelandic before finally going to Iceland. Not only did I feel more comfortable in every day situations it was so rewarding when people spoke to me in Icelandic (in simple situations) and I could actually reply briefly.Maybe they were just smiling at my efforts to actually speak their language (not many people do really…) but they actually understood me and I even got a compliment on my pronunciation! It was well worth the effort.

  3. An Cat Dubh:

    I’m a Hebrew speaker and I find a way to phrase a sentence without resorting to gendered words. Usually talking about someone or something else does the trick. All you gotta do is wait for the other person to use gendered vocabulary themselves.

    Or, if it’s a very liberal-looking person, ask directly what gender to address them by.

  4. Yordanka:

    Hello from Bulgaria!
    Here we have verbs depends on subjects gender. And a little trick here is to use a formal way of speaking. In this way we sounds as we speak in plural and don’t need to specify the gender of the other person. Just sometimes you’d… sound too polite.
    But I think everyone here would appreciate your efforts to speak in Bulgarian and some mistakes don’t matter 🙂

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Yordanka Ahh that’s clever…yes, same in Israel, nobody minded that I was screwing up their gender. It’s easy to cut beginners a lot of slack!

  5. FoA:

    Its good to learn a bit of the language of the country you are visiting so that you wouldn’t feel awkward or out of place.

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