The reality for me, an immigrant at 71, is that whatever sophistication of language I have in English will manifest itself only erratically in Hebrew. As much as I might want to speak to my friends here in Israel in their native tongue, to relate to them with all the complexity of thought and emotion their lives and mine hold, as an immigrant, I’ll only ever get partway there.
This is something I never thought of when I was younger and going off to live in West Africa, in Afghanistan, in Italy – not as an immigrant, but as a resident of some length. In the egotism of my youth, I rattled along in those languages, feeling perfectly fluent, oblivious to the look of puzzlement / bemusement on native faces.
That was youth. Older now, more aware, and an immigrant, I think of all the older immigrants to the United States, to Israel, or elsewhere, who have crossed one ocean and, having landed in their new country, face yet another: the ocean of language, lying vast and daunting in front of them, replete with slippery creatures behaving in confusing ways.
I’m working hard to put what’s in my mind on my lips, and I know I’ll keep trying even given the odds. I also know I can’t complain; I have the good fortune to have as a mother tongue the lingua franca of the era.
Given I could get along in English – and I am verging on 72 — , what’s the purpose of even trying to learn? Our mother tongue is fundamental to our sense of the world, to whatever it is that forms our character, our vision, so why jump into a current where I’m fated forever to swim upstream?
My reason: Learning a language allows me in a modest, but exciting way, to let go of certainty. I used to find this adventure and stimulation by mountain climbing in the Tetons, by running marathons, by riding on top a load of peanuts through the savannah and jungles of Nigeria, by taking a Pakistani army truck to Hunza along the steep cliffs and alluvial fans of the Himalayas….
I can’t do that any more. I was young; now I’m old, and whether by the force aging exerts or by choice, my vision of what constitutes adventure, has broadened, has moved into a new adventure in learning. And I have found that language learning packs the same punch you experience when you first learn to read, when the symbols come alive on the page. Do you remember how exciting it was to be called on and be able to read: “See spot run.”?
Learning a new language has always compelled me outside myself. Peoples’ lives are embedded in their their grammar, their nouns, adjectives and prepositions. As it did when I was young immersed in other languages, studying Hebrew now (with more intent, more concentration) urges me to note my surroundings with new eyes. Out of the rut of my own comfortable language and reading of the world, I travel to a stance where I always should be, but mostly am not: that of struggling to understand the people and the world around me, never vacant even during the simplest experiences.
Adjectives wink at me, verbs box me in the ears, laughing, “I’m different! You never met anyone like me before! Hang out with me and we’ll go places.”