Speaking the Language

The official language of the State of Israel is Hebrew. That's what Israelis learn in their schools. It's what they use in daily life, in their businesses and law offices and government agencies. Israeli music has Hebrew lyrics. Israeli novels are in Hebrew. It is the language of Israeli society. That's why, from the age of two until thirteen my parents had me study Hebrew; in order that one day I could come here and be able to speak the language. And though I am by no means fluent, I can speak Hebrew. I can walk up to any pedestrian, any employee in any store, or any waitress and speak to them just fine in Hebrew. It took many years of hard work and practice, but I'm pretty good at speaking Hebrew.

That is, I think I am. I can't be too sure, because hardly a soul speaks to me in Hebrew here. Here's how a normal conversation goes here.

Me: "Shalom. Yesh li she'elah." (Hello. I have a question.)
Israeli: "Yes?"
*I do a doubletake...did I speak to him in English? Or did he just respond in Hebrew?*
Me: "Ehh...Eifoh ani yachol limtzoh et harechov [shem shel harechov]" (Uhh...where can I find the street, [street name])
Israeli: "I've never heard of it."
Me: "Beseder...atah lo gar birushalayim?" (OK. You don't live in Jerusalem?)
Israeli: "I understand English just fine."
Me: "Fine. I'm leaving."

Either that, or I say "Ani lo meveen anglit" (I don't understand English) after his first response in English and he looks at me like I'm either crazy or confused. Or both. That's how it went for the first month or so. Now, I'm starting to learn some tricks.

  1. Fake an Israeli accent as best as you can for the first sentence you say. If it sounds Israeli enough that it leaves the Israeli confused about your nationality, he might respond in Hebrew. Once you have a Hebrew dialogue going, he might not switch to English.
  2. Ask a complicated question that requires a complicated answer, something medical or science related. If the Israeli doesn't know the terminology in English, he might respond in Hebrew. Once you have him started, pretend you understood his answer and change the topic to something you can converse about.
  3. Go where English speakers don't. Anywhere far from downtown. Look for restaurants where the primary menu is in Hebrew, synagogues where there are only books in Hebrew, and things like open air markets and shops far from downtown.
  4. At social gatherings, listen for who is already speaking Hebrew, and then join their conversations.
  5. Avoid areas around tourist attractions and malls.
  6. Learn Hebrew slang, and drop as many terms as you can as often as you can.
  7. Dress like an Israeli. Small t-shirts with the collars cut off, shorts-pants (I don't know what the term is but these things just look like absurdly long shorts), and sandals should do the trick.
Oh...and maybe learn Hebrew well, too.