New language acquisition is a journey that is part concentration, part commitment, and part willingness to look stupid.
Do not move to a non-English speaking country if you are proud. Because until you master the native language, you will spend most of your interactions with locals either looking or acting like the village idiot.
This is particularly challenging for individuals who are serial blushers, easily mortified, or folks who would rather die than be singled out in a crowd.
Now, since I have gotten used to being singled out in a crowd (for being blonde, short or for possessing an inherited impulse to say whatever is on my mind), I’m probably more qualified than most for the inevitable humiliation that comes with not understanding what’s being said to me or accidentally cursing someone when I meant to ask for water.
At the very least, since moving to Israel and opening my mouth for the first time, I have built up a tolerance for shame.
There are days in Israel when I feel like an A+ student. Days when I navigate the train system without any assistance. Days where I manage to tell an EMT which of my veins usually works the best. Days where I manage to set up playdates on the right day and at the right time.
Then there are days when I’m the kid who needs the 504 plan.
Sometimes Hebrew is just too hard for me to pay attention to. Sometimes I just want a government-funded translator to accompany me through life.
Recently, I started taking my friend Tamar’s Pilates class. Now, Tamar is great. Once she finally realized how bad my Hebrew truly is (for months, she thought I was exaggerating), she started breaking her teeth to speak more English to me. She works really hard during Pilates class to make sure I understand what’s going on — when to squeeze my stretched out post-pregnancies pelvic floor. When to release. When to breathe in. When to fall to the floor in agony.
Despite my petite and seemingly flexible frame, I’m not one of these dancer types. I hide my lack of coordination very well … until you get to know me better, or walk anywhere with me and discover how clumsy I am. So Pilates, even when taught to me in English, is a challenge for me. I’m the girl in the class that never knows whether I’m meant to mirror the teacher or do the opposite — because, after all, her right is my left. Right?
I’m the girl who always does repetitions to her own beat even when the instructor indicates otherwise. Not because I’m a rebel, but because I didn’t get it.
I’m the girl who works really hard to pay attention when the teacher is looking at me because I know chances are I’ve been doing it wrong. Otherwise, I would have actually felt it when the teacher shouted, “Ladies, do you feel it?!” I did not, however, feel it. Not in my thighs nor in my lower abdomen, only in that place you feel embarrassment and reproach.
So taking a Pilates class that is offered in Hebrew is a real sign of courage on my part. Or desperation. My belly is getting too flabby for a woman who is not having any more children.
I need something. And I’m willing to suck up the shame to look better in a bathing suit this summer.
The problem is I have to concentrate 100% of the time during Pilates class. I can’t let my guard down at all. This is not unique to exercise class in Israel. It was true also in the U.S. whenever I took yoga or Pilates because of the above-mentioned lack of coordination and confusion. But it’s more of a challenge here because when Tamar calls my name and asks kindly in Hebrew, “Jen, do you understand?” I can’t say yes or no because, truth is, I wasn’t listening.
Instead of actively listening, I was off in la-la land wondering if people liked my Facebook post; or if anyone retweeted my zombie apocalypse article (or if the zombie apocalypse article was too over the top for my “target audience.”) When you don’t fully understand the language you don’t possess the ability for instant recovery. You can’t do two things at one time.
You probably haven’t realized how adept your brain is, have you? Think about the last time you weren’t paying attention to your spouse or your child. They asked you a question and you either gave a half-assed nod or didn’t answer at all. As soon as they get pissed off at you or, in the case of my youngest child, stole your smartphone out of your hand and tugged on your left breast, what did you do? You quickly put “recall mode” into action, right? And somehow, you managed to recall some or most of what the person just asked you.
This does not happen when you are not listening to someone speaking your non-native language.
Recall mode fails.
But, while I’ll never be the dancer, I’m a bit of an actress. I got the chops.
And when I’m caught by surprise, woken up from my mind’s wandering, I play the role of dumb immigrant really well.
Of course, I’ve had a lot of practice.
(This was originally posted on the Aliyah blog section of The Jerusalem Post.)