Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

My Vanishing Vocabulary

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 March 1999

A very strange thing happens when you begin living in a place where the dominant language is not your mother tongue. The more skilled you become in the host language, the more you tend to forget your own.

Here in Israel, many people (native Israelis who are fluent in English, as well as native English speakers who are proficient - or becoming so - in Hebrew) usually end up speaking a hybrid language known affectionately as Heblish. My neighbor across the street, for example, is a lovely lady who lived in America with her husband and three children for many years before recently returning to Israel. Our onversations bounce back and forth between the two languages like a volleyball in search of a net. We may start out speaking Hebrew, but when we get stuck for the word we want, we switch to English. And most of the time, we don't even notice that we are doing it!

I have found that since I am not in the formal structure of a language class, I tend to learn new words in groups, depending on what is happening in my life. For example, when our house was being built, I learned the Hebrew words for all kinds of construction terms. It has gotten to the point where there are terms that I can remember more readily in Hebrew than in English. This happened just the other night when I spoke with my sister. Suddenly, I simply couldn't remember the word I wanted!

Even Israelis who aren't very comfortable speaking English know the rudiments: English is a required subject in public schools here, starting in the third grade. In the way parents spell out words they don't want their young children to understand, Israeli parents sometimes say the "secret" words in English.

I suppose it's fortunate that although I now live in a place where English is not the dominant language, it is a pretty close second. Street signs are printed in both languages. There are daily newspapers, and radio and television broadcasts of local news in English. But it is also difficult, because so many people speak English, but not well. Lately, I find myself making all kinds of terrible grammatical mistakes, particularly in spoken English. I'm not sure if I am imitating what I hear, or translating what I want to say directly from Hebrew into English (usually not a successful proposition, due to the various differences in sentence structure, use of tenses, and so on).

And so here I am, gradually becoming more fluent in Hebrew, and less so in English. It worries me, and I wonder what I can do about it.

(c) Amy Samin

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