Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Bilingual Country

Israel is a language student’s delight: large segments of the population speak two (or more) languages, and there is a large variety of languages spoken in the country. Almost all elderly people in Israel speak two languages: that of their country of origin, and Hebrew. Common second languages are English, Russian, Yiddish, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Other some-times heard languages include Portuguese, eastern European languages, and German. Even native-born elderly persons are likely to know English, from the time of the British mandate. And the constant influx of new immigrants, coupled with tourists, make it extremely common to hear “foreign” languages on the bus, in stores, and everywhere in between. Museum displays are always written with English in addition to Hebrew, and taped presentations in a variety of languages is common.. Add to this the fact that many products, DVD’s, etc, are produced and imported from Europe, fully labeled (and DVD’s labeled or spoken) in an assorted medley of languages. (Sometimes my kids turn their favorite DVD to a different language, just to hear what “Toy Story” sounds like in Italian or Japenese.) Another large segment of non-Hebrew speakers are the Chasidic Orthodox population, who often speak Yiddish. However, despite their preference for Yiddish, they will generally know Hebrew quite well

So this morning, as I waited for a bus, a young chasidic boy (about 6 years old) at the bus stop asked me in Hebrew: “What time is it?”
-“Eight twenty two.”
This child was impeccably dressed, two long earlocks framing his face, and reminded me of my oldest grandson. His forehead creased slightly. “Can you tell me in Yiddish?”
This was a bit of a problem for me. I know only the briefest smattering of Yiddish, including numbers up to ten. Twenty two is not included in MY Yiddish lexicon. So I said “ten and ten plus two… almost half-past eight.”
He asked me in Hebrew which numbers of buses had gone by, and which not. Five minutes later he asked if it was already eight thirty. I asked if his school started at eight thirty, and he nodded yes. I felt sorry for him because he was going to be late, due to a lapse in bus service. (Several minutes had passed with no buses going by, much longer than expected.) Later he boarded the bus with me, and as he got off the stop before mine, I thought to myself: I hope his teacher isn’t angry, and believes him when he says the bus was late. He looked like a really sweet child, and I wanted him to have a nice start to his day.

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