Learning (or, in my case, trying to learn) another language was high entertainment.

In English, I rarely if ever used a word the wrong way. I was a serious reader very young and had a big passive vocabulary. By passive, I mean I knew a lot of words but had never used them in conversation. I knew what they meant and how to spell them, but not how they sounded.

I had no idea that Too-son and Tucson were one place. Or that ep-ee-TOME was epitome. I remember those two examples because of the hilarity they caused the adults in the area. I was all of 8, but adults were not all that nice to kids. They still aren’t, if I think about it.

language school

I was even more entertaining in Israel. I am sure that my fumbling attempts to learn the language, having caused hysterical laughter, probably played a part in my never properly learning Hebrew. I was so embarrassed by my errors, it didn’t seem worth it, especially since everyone knew at least a little English.

My first big discovery — during my first week in the country — was that Zion (Zy-on) means penis. In Hebrew, it’s tzee-own. So if you say that Israel is the Land of Zion using your good American pronunciation, you will reduce Israelis within earshot to tears of laughter.

They can be a rough crowd.

To add another layer of problems over the difficulty in just getting the words out through my teeth which were clearly not designed for all those gutturals, many words in Hebrew are very much like one another, yet have hugely different meanings. Sha-ah is an hour. Shan-nah is a year. So there you are saying “My Hebrew isn’t all that good, I’ve only been here for two hours.”

After a while, I mostly spoke English and used Hebrew words as needed when I could find no English equivalent. Eventually, I got to a point where almost everyone could be expected to understand most of what I said. Without laughing at me. But not happily. My accent made their ears hurt.

You might consider this when you meet immigrants who are trying to learn English. I mention this only because, having been on the other side of this experience, a bit of kindness to people trying to work through a difficult life transition while learning a new language and culture can go a long way to make them feel less lonely, threatened, excluded, and generally miserable.

Just a thought.

Categories: Anecdote, Humor, Immigration, language, learning

Tags: , , , , , , ,

30 replies

  1. Quite the learning experience culturally and “wordy” mahwha


  2. During my career, I worked with a lot of Hispanic folk from different countries…calling them “Mexican” to some of them was a huge insult. I used to be annoyed when some of them refused to speak English – leading to the misconception on my part that they refused to LEARN. (I’m still sorta judgmental about the issue) A Hispanic friend told me it wasn’t often that the person COULDN’T speak English, it was that they were highly embarrassed by their accent or scared they’d say something wrong and be laughed AT. I used to try my ‘pidgen’ Spanish on them and that usually broke the ice and they’d try a few words in English in return. My judgment comes in when I hear/see someone from another culture who insists on refusing to participate in American culture or even learn to speak a few words. I’d do my utmost to embrace the culture in THEIR country after all, and would be embarrassed not to know a few words of the language at least. One of my flaws I suppose. Pays to remember everyone is different and to practice ACCEPTANCE, right?


    • It’s one of those things it’s easy to assume you would do, but the older you get, the harder it is. Kids pick up languages easily. By the time we lived in Israel for 6 months, Owen spoke Hebrew fluently, while I could barely have a simple conversation. We need to approach language when kids are younger in the U.S. When children learn another language early, they will be more likely to learn other languages quickly when they are older. But trust me, learning a new language is harder than it seems. Kids don’t seem to care when they sound foolish, but adults? We are easily embarrassed.


  3. I can identify with that. Brave soul to learn another language.


  4. oh yes, I know all about these problems, although malpronounciation in Hebrew wasn’t ever a challenge for me! On the up-side those said language ‘oops’ also created always much hilarity and as we learned early not to mind making huge fools of ourselves language-wise we learned to communicate with all our failings and faults all the same…. I’m quite talented for languages, Hero Husband isn’t. I have no problem to use other languages when I can’t think of the correct word I am looking for – in any language. Then I usually either get corrected gently by my ‘vis-à-vis’, laughed at kindly, or a sharp lifting of eyebrows indicate to me to search a bit more for the correct wording/sense/or give up….


  5. Totally relate to this. The French pronounce ‘queue’ very differently to how I imagined they would, and ‘cul’, a none-too polite colloquialism for backside, exactly how I had pronounced ‘queue’….


    • It’s those nasty overlapping words that really get you. After Zion and a few others which simply brought down the house — as if they’d never heard it before? — I got a bit over-sensitive about it. Eventually, I had no interest in learning it at all, although my passive understanding was better. I could listen and understand. I just couldn’t respond.


      • I took to French like a duck to water, even though I occasionally waddled a bit ;).


        • I did okay in school with French, but Hebrew is NOTHING like a romance language OR English. Hebrew and Arabic are the last two of what were a lot of middle-Eastern languages. Arabic is a much bigger language than Hebrew because it has been in continuous use for thousands of years while Hebrew was essentially dead from 400 AD until 1948. Bit of a gap there.

          It’s actually an easy language, grammatically — just three tenses and most words are based on one root word, so that the word that means “north” (tsFONE) which, in another variation means “compass” (tsfoNEET) and also mean conscience (because it points you in the right direction). Properly twisted around, it ALSO means righteous and correct (but not the same as “right” which is a different root. Each word has its own form, but comes from the same three or four letter “root.” It’s very logical, but hard for an English speaker because there is no conjunctive and many missing tenses. There are things you literally can’t say in Hebrew, or at least not the way you say them in English. You have to find another way to say it.


  6. English would not be the easiest language to learn with so many words spelled the same way but with different pronounciation or meaning yet we expect everyone to be able to understand us when we go abroad.


    • English has become a sort of international language just about everywhere except maybe Malaysia and Tibet and other inland Asian countries. All languages have a lot of homonyms, it turns out. Hebrew doesn’t have homonyms so much as it has words that sound very similar to each other that mean really different things.


      • I was watching a Norwegian rail film last night, with subtitles but I noticed how similar some words are to English or German.


        • English has always been willing — even eager — to absorb other languages into it. We aren’t a Romance language, so our actual basic language was I think Westphalian Saxon. Then came the Normans and the Norman French and of course, the Celts left a lot of their language too. And we adopted a lot of Latin because the Romans conquered England and a lot of Latin found its way into English — and the Romans already used a lot of Greek anyway. So English is a lot of stuff all scrunched together.


  7. I have nothing but sympathy for those unlucky souls who were not born in an English speaking country and then move to live in one.
    I’ve only ever spoken it for 60 years now and i still can’t understand it at times! 🙂

    While it would be incredibly difficult to learn later in life i am bugged when people who have lived here for a generation have not manged to pick up at least a little of the lingo.

    Thanks for the Tze-own tip! 😉


    • I think it must be difficult to learn proper (whatever that means!) English if you haven’t gotten at least a bit of it in school first. English is complicated by its lack of consistent rules and that we’ve absorbed so many other languages into it. Hebrew is actually a very simple language from a linguistic point of view, but it’s hard to pronounce and there are so many similar sounding words, often all taken from the same root, but with very different meanings.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I know the experience of prouncing a word to get embarrassed, although after 50 years of Swiss German it now rarely happens. I am more likely to pronounce an English word wrongly

    Liked by 1 person

    • Americans had the hardest time learning Hebrew. Almost everyone else, including the British, had an easier time. I think it’s because we don’t make young kids learn languages. We don’t get serious about languages until kids are in their teens and we don’t develop a good ear for it Most European countries start teaching a second language very early and at least one more shortly thereafter. Americans just assume everyone speaks English.

      Liked by 1 person

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