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.