Today I was about to get water at the machine at work but there was a middle-aged man already there, filling his tea. I waited for a little bit, peaking in to see if he had moved on. He kept standing there, occasionally pressing the button for hot water, but just seeming to watch his cup. Finally, I entered into the kitchenette and he stepped away from the machine, smiled, said something in Hebrew and gestured for me to go ahead. I shyly said thank you in Hebrew and filled up my cup. He proceeded to start chatting me up, laughing at himself and looking interested in whatever my response may be to whatever he was asking me about. I sheepishly smiled back, as I do multiple times a day now, saying “I only speak English…sorry!” Every time I do I feel a bit more like a stupid American tourist who didn’t even bother to learn the basics before she came to a country. Usually people smile and nod, acknowledging that it’s perfectly reasonable for me to not know their native tongue.
Today, however, the man just looked at me and, in perfect English, mind you, asked “why haven’t you learned yet?” He wasn’t being mean or patronizing, just asking a simple question of why I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I was a little stunned and after sipping my water said…”I….guess I don’t know?! I’d like to!” He smiled approvingly and said “slowly…slowly” and walked off.
As so many have already noted, I’m amazed at the mix and ease which so many people here switch between languages. Being pretty bad at them myself, I doubt I’ll master one – no less multiple – languages in my lifetime. But I was struck with how commonplace that it would be that I would be relatively competent in Hebrew before coming to Israel. Or at least that it would be an easy thing to pick up. I am amazed at the lack of multiple languages in the States and what I feel is a culture that makes learning a language seem so difficult – or at least a luxury if one feels like taking it in school or has the time to immerse themselves in during time abroad and not an important skill for being a “global citizen,” as Smith would say. Do Americans just have something in them that makes it inherently more difficult to learn languages? Or am I giving the rest of the world too much credit?