For the record, I am not and have never been good with languages. Why can some people pick up languages as easily as some of us pick up cold viruses? I don’t have a math brain either, but that doesn’t bother me. There’s always someone else who can do math, and even my phone has a built-in calculator. Language is a different story entirely. I need to know Hebrew, and know it well.
I visited a congregant in the hospital yesterday, who happens to have been a well-known professor of linguistics. While I was there, he got a phone call from his grandson who complained about his language class in school. He scolded the young man and said, “People who speak only one language are like people who have only one eye — they have no depth perception and therefore no true understanding of other peoples and cultures. It is necessary to speak at least two languages well.”
I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I did not reveal my utter failure as a linguist. Of which I was especially glad when I later googled Stan and discovered that he is famous as the co-creator of the The Modern Language Aptitude Test, which was developed to measure foreign language learning aptitude. According to Stanley Sapon (my congregant) and his co-author, virtually everyone can learn a foreign language given adequate opportunity (“virtually everyone” being the key phrase, as far as I’m concerned). Their test helps predict “how well, relative to other individuals, an individual can learn a foreign language in a given amount of time and under given conditions.”
There’s no reason for me to even contemplate taking their test, because I already know, to my dismay, what the results would be. I stink at languages. Oh, I’m pretty good at the really basic stuff, but when it comes to complicated grammar and especially to memorizing vocabulary, I am a spectacular failure.
Hebrew further complicates the matter because there are three distinct versions: biblical Hebrew, prayerbook Hebrew, and modern Hebrew. Of the three, I’m worst at modern Hebrew. This is mostly because I am a visual learner, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out what someone is saying if I can’t see the words. My kids learned this long ago. If they wanted help with homework (regardless of the topic) it was useless for them to read a question to me. I had to see it myself to absorb the content. It follows that if I can’t understand spoken English some of the time, I’m a lost cause when it comes to spoken Hebrew.
Prayerbook Hebrew is easier. Keep in mind that I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours sitting with a prayerbook in my hands, either on my own or during a formal service. After a while, it starts to sink in. With biblical Hebrew, it depends on the particular passage I’m reading. Most of Genesis is a breeze; Deuteronomy, not so much. Isaiah, virtually impossible.
One of my fears about rabbinical school is that I’ll have to spend an extra year improving my Hebrew skills in intensive classes before I can begin my studies. At my age, adding a year to an already lengthy program is daunting. I had planned to spend a couple of years working on my Hebrew via on-line classes and flying solo, but after 10 months, I haven’t gotten very far.
People keep telling me that I’m doing this all wrong, that the best/only way to learn is to go to Israel for a year, or at least a summer. I suspect that these are the same people who think it’s possible to keep one’s home dust- and clutter-free, or to limit a household’s pets to one or two animals, all of which any sensible person knows is completely impossible. And I am an eminently sensible person.