I’m an Alien, Part II

“Why don’t these people speak English?”

“I hate calling customer service and not understanding what they’re saying to me!”

“Why is ‘1’ for Spanish, and ‘2’ for English?! If you live here, learn English!”

In case it wasn’t apparent from the above, these are all things I frequently heard Americans say while I lived in the United States. The lack of empathy that the average American has for people who are not native English speakers always shocked me. No matter how many variations of the above sentence I heard, no matter how often I witnessed people getting angry at someone who didn’t speak English well enough to make themselves understood, I never ceased to be amazed.

Contrary to popular belief, English is not the official language of the United States, it is simply the most common language. According to Wikipedia, “Approximately 337 languages are spoken or signed by the population, of which 176 are indigenous to the area. Fifty-two languages formerly spoken in the country’s territory are now extinct

Most public school systems in the United States have ESL (English as a second language) classes for kids who are not native English speakers. Through this, the second generation of immigrants will speak English fluently in addition to their mother tongue.

In Israel, there are two official languages. Neither one is English. Nor French, nor Russian, nor Spanish. Hebrew and Arabic are the two languages officially recognized in Israel. But it’s not difficult to find Israelis who speak a decent level of English, and there are many Israelis who speak French, Russian and Spanish, often depending on their own heritage.

One of the most common complaints I hear from Olim to Israel from the US, is the inability to communicate properly here. Not everyone comes to Israel with a high level of Hebrew, and even after months of Ulpan, not every immigrant will have the ability to speak Hebrew, or even understand it at a level that enables them to communicate well. No doubt this is one of the most difficult things about moving to a new country.

But here’s the thing – remember all those Latin American immigrants to the US? The parents who never quite master English? But whose kids will be in ESL until they do, and who will be fluent? That is who you are. You are the parents who immigrate at a slightly older age. You may never speak Hebrew well enough to talk politics with Yossi the bus driver, or to argue about bank fees with Iris the bank manager.  You may never be confident enough in Hebrew to haggle prices in the shuk, or to give a Dvar Torah to a room full of people. But your children will. It may take time, and I’ve been told to expect it to take a couple of years, but it will happen. Your kids will be bilingual, and they will be able to help you when you need it. They will also be Israeli culturally, which means you can get them to haggle at the shuk on your behalf.

If you feel comfortable only mixing with other Anglos, that’s fine – it certainly takes a lot of the stress out of your social life. But remember that you are the outsider. This is Israel, after all, and Hebrew is the language spoken here – and Arabic. If you are in a situation where you don’t have the Hebrew to handle it, and English is not an option, find a friend who can help you out.

Just don’t expect Israel to speak to you in English. Israel is Israeli. Hebrew and Arabic are her native languages. She learns English in school, but not everyone has a flair for language – that’s why you’re having a hard time with Hebrew.


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