It’s a fact that the skill of language learning is a child’s game; the younger you learn the easier it is. Children’s brains are like sponges and age unfortunately hardens the sponge, making it way more difficult for languages to sink in. At 18 I briefly lived in France and worked for Eurocamp, a British company that employs students to look after clean up after their clients on enormous campsites in Europe. I learnt French until age 16 so had a very basic grasp, and I did pass the Eurocamp language test so I reckon that made me more than competent to deal with the campsite management and local community. I managed quite well and following a brief fling with the campsite chef (only in France does a campsite have a chef), I was able to converse quite adequately.
13 years later when I moved to Israel the sponge had dried a little too much for another language and 8 years on I still struggle. Part of the blame has to lie on the shoulders of one of the first experiences I had here. Fresh off the plane I enrolled in the State’s language school, The Ulpan. I was convinced that going to this school would be like attending lectures at college, learn something new with lots of people in the same situation. Wrong. Think primary school without a common language. Add to that the bizarre twist of a film crew making a documentary about us. If any of you have learnt a new language as an adult you know that there is nothing more shameful than having to do it in front of an audience, bad enough that my fellow students were witness to my ‘Hello my name is Katie and I am from England’ but to have a camera in my face and a boom swinging above my head took it to a whole new level. Those who eventually saw the documentary series they made, The Ulpan (here’s a clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMtZ2eJFD-A), will know that we also had a neurotic teacher who, whether for the cameras or because she was crazy, felt it fit to burst into tears in front of the class, storm out of the classroom in a fit of anger or smother her students with kisses and bear hugs. I am English – we don’t hug random strangers and we certainly don’t cry in public. Suffice to say I finished the course with little or no knowledge of the language, an inherent suspicion of all Israeli women over 50 and due to the high turn-over of students (98% have since left the country), very few friends.
My husband has an aptitude for languages having lived in many foreign parts in his childhood and has always proclaimed he can speak French, which without a shadow of a doubt is a lie: A few years ago he travelled to Moscow to cater a high end dinner (he’s a pastry chef) and told the organisers that he spoke ‘kitchen’ French. Being able to pronounce baguette and croissant does not constitute speaking French but as they had said their chefs spoke Russian and only a couple knew a little French he figured he’d get by. ‘Passez moi le spoon et le bowl sil vous plait’ apparently worked for the duration of the experience as it turned out the Russians had also been telling porkies, his speaking English in a faux French accent had them thoroughly fooled. Think ‘Allo Allo’ in Russia. It does rather go to prove that the major talent behind speaking a language is confidence and that is a skill honed over a lifetime.
My confidence in speaking the language has taken some knocks in my eight years here; asking for a watermelon sandwich in a café is not one of my finest moments in my early days. There have been great swathes of time when I have refused to speak a word in anything but English for fear of looking ridiculous. As part of my coming-of-age quest to right some wrongs and make some changes I went back to (a different) Hebrew school earlier this year and lo and behold discovered that I have actually mastered it to a certain degree and I am proud of my skill to learn such a difficultt language at such a late stage. I give all credit to my son who is 4 so you can imagine the level of my vocabulary; still, in the right environment I have grasped the skill well enough to get by. Not only can I speak to a large extent these days I can also read enough to know when the translation is wrong on the TV subtitles. I have even figured out how to open books and magazines back to front which sounds easy but believe me it takes some figuring out. The confidence part might take another 8 years so until then I will remain playground mute and only speak Hebrew when absolutely necessary.