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.