Monday, June 23, 2003

The language issue (a recurring subject)
When I was in the university, back in the Dark Ages, studying Political Science, we had a compulsory computer course. This consisted of sitting in a classroom and copying down off the blackboard lists of strange words and symbols that, we were told, if typed into a computer in the correct form would create another list of strange words and symbols. If the other list of strange words and symbols turned out to be the correct one, we would pass the course. After class, we used to traipse over to the other side of the university to the little computer center in the basement where we would have to fight for the use of one of the computer terminals. We used to type out our little lists of words and symbols and then we would have to wait for hours for a printout. When we eventually got our printout we had to try and work out if we had got the desired result, if the list that had come out was the one that would help us pass the course. If not, we had to start all over again, fighting for a terminal, typing in our little list, having made some sort of trial and error adjustment, and again waiting for hours for the printout. We often spent the whole day this way. I had no idea at all what I was doing.

Needless to say, this was one of the most repeated courses in the faculty.

Amazingly, not only did I manage to pass the course the first time I took it, which was rare, I even did so with a very good mark. This dumbfounded me. I eventually managed to work it out. The reason was, I reckoned, that unlike most of the other students, I hadn't tried to understand what was going on. I had treated it all as if it was a foreign language (which it was of course). Knowing I was good at languages, I had made believe I was in a foreign country having to get by with a very inadequate knowledge of the language spoken in that country. And it had worked.

This attitude had worked wonders for me on a visit to Paris round about the same period. I have never been propositioned so often in such a short period. I didn't understand a word (I took Arabic not French, remember?) but I knew exactly what they were talking about. The nicest thing was this old guy in the flea market. He gabbled on in Yiddish (of which my knowledge was also sadly limited). I was a shoine meidele and he wanted me to meet his son... (rapid exit by me, big smile on my face).

I was in Paris with two friends who had studied French for years in Tel Aviv's Alliance school. They were so terrified of opening their mouths with their schoolgirl French, that, irony of ironies, I was their spokesperson. I did just fine with my little Berlitz phrasebook. I found the French were delighted that I made the effort. Or was it because I was a shoine meidele? Once I'd stuttered out a sentence or two in French, they were satisfied that I respected their beloved language and were quite happy to switch to English (which they apparently did know, when they chose to).

My life is in Hebrew. At home, at work, with all my friends, Hebrew is my language. I feel uncomfortable speaking English (although this has improved slightly since I've been blogging in English).

Why then do I write so much better in English than in Hebrew?

I think it's partly the fault of the little British Council Library that happened to be right next door to my school as a child in Haifa. I don't think it was open very often. In fact, I think it was only open a few days a week for an hour or so. But when it was open, I was there. I read every children's book in the place. I would wait excitedly for a new batch of books to arrive.

I have no idea why the British Council saw fit to spend all that money on the little library in a backwater like Haifa. It could have been for historic reasons. Haifa had been an important town for the British during their stint as a colonizer in these parts. Anyway, if I remember correctly, it closed down a few years later, after I had moved on to high school, which was located elsewhere.

The result of having had such a rich supply of English language reading material was that I got round to reading stuff like Dvora Omer's wonderful books and other Hebrew children's classics, at a much older age than my daughters are reading them today. And I never got round to reading the rubbish, like Kofeeko and Danideen. From the British Council I moved on to various secondhand bookstores in Haifa and later in Jerusalem, during my army service, to supply my English language fix. Then in university I started reading mainly the cheaper and far more available Hebrew and this continued for most of my adult life. That is till appeared, tempting me with its irresistible wares.

It's not that I can't write in Hebrew, it's just that I'm not happy with the standard of the language I use. It's not rich enough to satisfy me. I suppose it could improve with practice, but I envy the ease with which my girls write so beautifully in Hebrew at such a young age. Youngest really bowled us over when she showed us her Torah homework yesterday. She had used such flowery language. No one could have accused us of helping her do her assignment. Neither Bish nor I can write like that.

Mid-year resolution: Read more Hebrew. (I actually bought some books in Hebrew Book Week, and added them to the ever growing pile of books by my bed, which is threatening to take over our bedroom).

[I'm trying to remember what I meant to say when I started this. It will come to me eventually]