Friday, April 03, 2009


When it comes to languages, some days are good and other days are not. I am definitely no polyglot. My only real strength is a good ear. More than this, I am gifted in my ability to read people very quickly. I know when someone is flirting, giving me a warning or an order, telling me to wait and be patient, or is otherwise trying to ask me for something. Sure, if you slow down and speak to me directly in Hebrew or Arabic, I can follow along and have a decent conversation about the weather, the new prime minister, my family and what have you. And, yes, I can read some basic things in these languages, like signs and sentences and such. I am able to navigate maps and the bus system on either side of the line. But when it comes to being fully functional in these languages, I am hooked on phonics (and, yes, it works for me).

Some days are clear and good, and I don't feel like my head is going to explode. Other days are not so good, and this is especially true when I am tired. Suddenly, the languages become mixed and I become a muddle of words. Inside, I feel myself grasping for a word--any word--to make sense of the moment. It is then that I fail to make a complete sentence either way, I swap words like "Of course" or "yes" or "What?" or "No, thank you". This is when I give up and defer to English, which is lazy, I know. I know.

But in light of the politics in this part of the world, I have recently been told by my Hebrew instructor that it is foolish to swap words, even when I am uncertain. The other day, I had a private session with her. We spent some time reading a couple of short paragraphs about a certain Israeli hiking trail that runs from the north to the south of the country. After reading the story, I was supposed to speak about it freely, while using some of the new vocabulary I had just learned. It was a tired day for me. I wasn't feeling the pressure of the tutorial session. Despite the decision I made to jump in and do the best I could, my mind had a mind of its own. (Funny how that happens.)

As we spoke (or, really, I attempted to speak), I could not remember the word in Hebrew for "sometime". Given the close proximity for Arabic and Hebrew, there have been times when I have been able to recall a word in Arabic in my head, muddle the pronunciation around a little bit and come pretty darn close to the same word in Hebrew. Many words are like this. In fact, as an outsider to both languages, I tend to see their overlap long before their few points of divergence.

Unfortunately, I stammered the Arabic word for "sometime" in the company of my teacher, who caught it and asked what I was saying. I apologized and lightly said that it was the Arabic word.

"Where did you learn Arabic," she said in English with a strong Israeli accent.

"I studied it a few years ago before I began to study Hebrew," I replied. I could sense her discomfort, which was not helped by the fact that her eyes were bulging more than normal and her face suddenly appeared red.

"I will say this to you out of protection," she said in bad English. "You should never mix words like this again. Ok, here, it is ok, but do not do this on the street."

"Yes, words are political," I said with my best innocent smile.

"Yes," and she added, "I do not advise you to practice Arabic now that you are learning Hebrew. If you are Jewish, then only Hebrew! Only Hebrew, ok?"

I nodded and smiled while thinking that this conversation was less about language than it was about my teacher's fears and personal issues. But, of course, I kept this to myself. After all, we all come from somewhere.

Oddly, this seems like the place in the world where it would be so easy for someone like me to feel very schizophrenic. Of course, some days are better than others. Not everything is perfect or serene, and I am often frustrated. And yet I feel that no matter the language itself, I possess a strong, inner understanding of my purpose here that brings me balance despite the storm in which I am most fully and consciously immersed.



Anonymous said...

I've just come across your blog and want to tell you I enjoy it. The idea that you speak both languages and also that you explore the political as well as the linguistic links impresses me. Thanks for a little mind matter-Ill keep coming back. Sarah in Singapore

Namaste said...

Thanks for the comment, Sarah! Any time you feel like guest writing about life in Singapore, let me know! :)

Charles Montgomery said...

perhaps she just was telling you that this kind of language mixing could cause problems on the street?

It's good to know that only the "other" has "fears and personal issues" and that you are beyond that.

But not beyond making fun of someone else's "bulging eyes." I understand.. you are "light" and "innocent" and she is "bulging" and "red" (Freud would have a word)

As we say here in Korea.. "nice-uh!"

Namaste said...

hi "rwellor"--

if you are not happy with my writing, then kindly spend your time reading and commenting elsewhere. if you re-read this post for its content, you will see that i am in no way "making fun" of anyone but myself and the absurdity of the situation in which i find myself living. it's important to keep a balance and a perspective. this is not to imply that i am above or "beyond that", as you seem to assume in your comment. rather, in descriptive writing, one must be just that--descriptive. my apologies if you were not able to see this from a cursory reading of this post. my writing tends to be very layered in design, and appealing to those who are willing to read its subtext and understand that i am alluding to a picture that if far bigger than you or I.

best wishes,


Charles Montgomery said...

You miss my point,

Perhaps I was unclear.

I like your writing and read your blog regularly. But you have a solipsistic streak that is sometimes amazing to behold.

BTW - If you don't want people to read your blog who don't 100% agree with what you write?

There are ways to make it private if you desire an echo chamber.

Namaste said...

Rwellor-- Looks like we're missing each other in the dark here. This entire blog is my own solipsistic streak, if you will-- which is a great observation--and should in no way be launched (or taken) as a criticism for anyone's delivery of descriptive accounts.

That said, I would like to note the irony of labeling me of being solipsistic is just as equally solipsistic. Thanks for the chuckle on that. :)

My reason for keeping this blog is to have a place to put something into the Universe that is intentionally critical, reflecting upon the world both around and inside of me. I am extremely rigorous with myself in this approach, always questioning and wondering. It happens that this is my particular forum to creatively organize and express these thoughts and observations. You'll note that I make it a point to keep things both thoughtful and thought-provoking. You may or may not happen to like or agree with these reflections, and that's perfectly ok. However, I am not in the business of making this a hater's forum for constantly negative comments, and I want to make this very clear. Call it my own solipsistic 'whatever', but I call this integrity. There's ample of room for superficial snark in cyberspace, and my point is that it doesn't belong here.

In the end, I treat those who take the time to come here with a great deal of respect and affection. This includes you. I do not know you, but I consider you a part of this particular epistemic community. You should feel free to comment. Comment regularly, if you like. But only commenting when you are displeased is not what I would intend to keep bringing you back here. Needless to say, the very last thing I am seeking to do in this forum is have my solipsism waste any of your solipsism's time. :)

All the very best to you in S. Korea--


Jessica said...

Do you think if I came to Israel and responded "baruch atta adonai" to everything people would think I was local? Those are the only words I know.

Charles Montgomery said...


I'll happily accepts your well-considered response and cop to my own solipsism (which I always find difficult to spell).

I have enjoyed your blog for some time, but I am the kind of reader who rarely comments unless something bothers me.

Part of my personal response, no doubt, is due to Korea's bizarre educational system which brings hordes of untrained teachers (in a caste system based on country, blondeness, and blue-eyedness) here. Untrained and often unprepared for a different culture, these foreigners (the Korean word is waegukin, and it means just that) often retreat into a defensive state in which anything Koreans do is suspect and anything Waegukin do is ok.

I suspect observing this kind of paralogia tis might make me a bit paranoid. ;-)

One of the things that I truly do enjoy about your blog is that you clearly are a 'learner' and not a 'defender'. And reading you blog, I've enjoyed watching you expand your horizons.

Also, I'm old and cranky.


Namaste said...

thanks, rwellor.

it's fun growing with you, too. ;)

S. Korea sounds like a head rush. as you can see, i prefer the desert. i happily blame it on my semitic, Mediterranean bloodline and compulsive need for sunshine. but between you and me, i can't imagine living in a place where i couldn't easily and completely blend into the crowd. disappearing is fun. i think you may have inspired a post! :)

all the very best,