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My Hebrew Story: By Gillian Rosenberg

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Gillian Rosenberg

As my phone dinged with the first text from the Israeli teenager that I was assigned to host as part of Diller Teen Fellows, a rush of excitement flowed through my body. I was finally going to get the chance to communicate directly with an Israeli teen and eventually she would come to the United States and I would host her for 10 days. I was excited for so many reasons, but especially ecstatic to be able to practice my Hebrew with a native speaker my own age. Hanna, the Israeli, texted me in English and I immediately responded in Hebrew. I had to look up a few words, but for the most part, I had no trouble conversing. After a few days, we decided to video-call and speak to each other live. Little did I know what awaited me over the phone…

The minute I answered her call, it was as if all my years of Hebrew schooling went out the window. My mind was completely blank. I could barely comprehend even the simplest “Shalom” She was speaking faster than I had ever heard anyone speak in Hebrew. Now, I have come to learn that this is a common predicament that language learners face when talking to natives, but at the time I was completely shocked and overwhelmed. I managed to get through that conversation with a lot of “Tov” (good) and “Ken” (yes) and “Ma”(What), but I left wondering how I was going to host her for ten days and why I suddenly couldn’t speak Hebrew.

It turns out that speaking in Hebrew with that Israeli was the best thing that could have happened for my Hebrew. Over the course of the exchange and then as I traveled to visit her in Israel and speak with other natives, I learned more Hebrew than I could have thought possible and even started to think in Hebrew sometimes. As I think back to how I felt when I originally talked to her, I realize how much speaking fast and with natives helped me improve my Hebrew.

I learned the value of speaking with native Hebrew speakers, but what I also picked up from those conversations were subtle cultural differences between Americans and Israelis. I noticed the way our language affects the tone we use, the way religion connects to Hebrew, and a whole new perspective on Israeli life just from learning to speak like a native. Though it has been two years since I first received that text from that Israeli in Diller Teen Fellows, I still continue to speak with her and other natives to keep learning about Hebrew, understanding life in Israel, and continuing the relationships I have formed.

If you are learning a new language, the best advice I can give you is to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by native speakers and then use them to help you improve on your own skills.