19 May 2016

What My Languages Mean To Me

I stumbled across this article the other day about language fluency, and figured it is time to write a post about what all the languages I speak mean to me.

I speak 4 languages (in order of appearance): Russian, Hebrew, English and German. I think you have noticed by now that this is something I take pride in, or at least I take speaking different languages  as a form of self-identification. And while I cannot be proud of speaking Russian and Hebrew, as those were brought to me since I was born/very little, I take pride in keeping all four in shape. To some extent, at least (I can never criticize myself enough when it comes to this).

I caught myself thinking about it many times: I use Russian in very specific contexts and situation, and I use English for certain purposes that I do not use Hebrew for. Not to mention German, which, at this point at least, has a completely different function.
It all comes down to a matter of relevance, usage in everyday life etc etc, and with which language I interact closer with or not.

Here's a small "story time" with each:

Whenever I tell people that I'm Russian, I always mean it as a language-based identification at first (I can hardly consider my socialization 100% Russian). This is something people notice at first from my accent (damn) and when Boris and I talk to each other. Russian has always been a home language to me: I would speak it before and after school, I would speak to all my relatives in it, to my grandparents in Uzbekistan, to my mom while shopping.
Russian would be the safe zone: when not wanting to be understood, we would speak it in a public place and laugh about it.
This is the language my mother would cuddle me with (I often say to close people that I have a "cuddle language", and this is exactly it). Furthermore, this is the language I speak with Boris, so it has also a romantic and erotic function.
On my first ever official job I spoke Russian as well- it was a call center for technical cable support, and we got all the russian-speaking clients (mostly old people, typically for Israel). And while that was the shittiest job in the world, the connection we made inside our team was nothing like the other coworkers have had. I had laughs with people completely different from me, people that I wouldn't touch with a stick. That was where I understood- Russian is that special thing, that in a second can place you in a very familiar, consolidating environment.
Place years of Russian culture from television, books and tv-shows (ah, Russian tv...) and you have a connection like no other.

"How To Squat Like Slav"
You guys have to watch this, it is painfully culturally accurate.

I cannot describe the process learning Hebrew consciously. I came to Israel when I was 6 years old and pretty much drank this new language thing till the last drop, which wasn't even something I can describe as being an effort (unlike my parents did). Soon I realized that even for Russian kids like me, Hebrew was the "outside of home" language. At school, everybody spoke it. Even with an accent. I went to grade school in the neighborhood where I grew up where a huge Russian-immigrant population was settled, and we only had like 3 "native" Israeli kids in our class. Boys would curse in Russian to seem cool, but everybody used Hebrew slang, and it was the most fun ever (well, it is Israel's national language and we studied in it after all).
On the other hand, one of the biggest imprints this language has made on me was through literature. In high school I took advanced literature (with the coolest teacher in the world, so that was part of the experience) and read so many things (original and translated): plays, poetry, fiction and even - and I refuse to forgive myself, but we had it on the reading list - Russian literature (Crime and Punishment), that I devoured happily. I felt like this was the language I enjoyed expressing myself with, and even recall giving my literature teacher a few things that I wrote to read.
It has since then changed.
Living in Berlin, I do not use Hebrew very often, except from when Boris and I talk. I often find myself searching for words when I am about to express myself with more than a sentence, and that's weird to me.
But some things will never let me go, and that is mostly slang, and the in-your-face expressions and humor Hebrew has to offer. And in the end, the mentality that flows through it, with which I inevitably grew up.

A great noise rock number by the Israeli band, Mashina.

This was something different. English was a goal I set myself to master, as soon as I noticed that I began to understand all the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon cartoons without subtitles on tv. My grades in English were ok, then again- I was never too good at tests and studying. It was speaking it and hearing it that was fun for me. Then came the music, and English seemed like the perfect language to express yourself with. Everybody did already anyway, so why shouldn't I try? In high school I quickly switched from writing in Hebrew to English, and thought that if I wroe a lot, my language will get so good I will surely sound like a native speaker! (little did I know).
I have endless Word files on my hard drive with poems I wrote in "I am an angsty teenager writing about goth stuff in rhymes".
The summer after graduation I went to a summer camp in Boston, where for the first time- I spoke English for an entire month! I was so happy about it I tried changing my accent every couple of days there. Then I began watching youtubers and noticed that I could pick up on many of the expressions they used in order to shape my own English.
As I grew older English seemed to be more familiar to me, and by English and mean American! This is basically how English is taught in Israel, British is very far away from me, especially culturally.
Moving to Berlin has pushed things forward. We speak with most of our friends in English and sometimes with other German people too.
English is a neutral zone- everybody understands it and can relate to it, and I cannot recall a time in my life where I would connect to English so often than now. I even catch myself on thinking that my future child and me might be speaking English a lot more than Russian, just because I find English so handy at the moment. Who knows?

This is where my typing slows down and my eyebrows come together on my forehead. This is where I need that one extra second to think before I open my mouth to speak. This is where when I'm tired, or anxious or nervous, I cannot trust myself to speak at all. And at the same time, this is where, after casually chatting for a few hours, I realized I didn't need that damn extra second at all: that I was just sitting there like a normal human being, talking to another human being.
Tell me that you are shocked that I ,with my level,  speak German for only 3 short years -  and you have just made the biggest compliment in the world to me.
Despite (somewhat) confidently studying (and passing!) and working in it, German is still thin ice. I make grammatical mistakes and sometimes stutter, depending on the subject, yet find myself firing expressions and shooting paragraphs on some days without the slightest effort.
This is where I raise my chin and let you (subtly) know that after accomplishing my dream and learning German and moving to Berlin - I am good god damn proud to be where I am. Proud to have been sweating over all those language exams. Proud to be accepted to a university and surviving it so far. Proud to have accustomed to a culture that was at first - quite scary.
I had a thing in the beginning after moving that I didn't allow myself to retrieve to English in German-challenging situations, I was sooo strict with myself that I nodded my head to sentences I didn't understand without asking, and ending up feeling like a fool.
I go easier on myself nowadays, and if I am speaking to someone, even to my boss, I would slip an English word here and there and she wouldn't even blink about it. Besides, that's how all the cool Jungs talk nowadays anyway.
Oh, and those language-comparing videos and memes, about "how does butterfly sound like in different languages" are so not funny after you've learned German. Seriously, German is a beautiful language that I regret to say - has a professional/educational function for me at the moment.
My vocabulary completely lacks in the romantic and sexual field, and to be honest, only imagining that I need to reply with "ja, ja" during a sexual encounter makes me cringe to my bones. I have though, in the recent year, mastered the everyday, peer-friends department and it has been loads of fun.

Ideal / Berlin
One of the best new wave (neue deutsche Welle) bands

I still have a few languages goals for the above 4, for example: to read in Russian more, to talk in Hebrew more, to stress less over German and try to connect with it more, also through reading.
My greatest fear, so far, is to be looked down upon in a professional environment for not being a native German speaker. A thing which, to my luck, hasn't ever happened yet. And since I live in a heterogeneous city as Berlin, is very rarely to occur.
I try with my entire being to pass as a long tern speaker, like an immigrant who grew up in Germany would talk. I try to erase traces of my accent in both German and English, just because it is thrilling for me. Being able to speak in an awesome way is perhaps one of the most important thing for me when it comes to languages, and to be able to communicate with people who speak them too, to have exciting interactions and conversations.
And for now, my language slots are full. I have little faith that I could master a 5th language as good as I did English or Hebrew, especially as the years go by. But again, who knows?

And I always say: it has been a good day if I spoke in all four languages today.

Sorry for the long post, hope it was somewhat interesting. I have been thinking on filming the accent tag, but I need to figure out technicalities first.
Have a wonderful summer!



  1. You have no idea how I envy you your fluent knowledge of 4 languages. I can forget simplest words from English and my accent is wonky, Russian - bite my ass, I haven't used it for last 5 years, and I'm currently struggling with Greek. But perhaps the biggest object of my jealousy is German D: I could never learn it; it's beautiful, but somehow words and grammar could never make it into my brain.

    1. German grammar is hell, but really, it's just one of those things that need to be accepted as they are. I used to compare it to Russian grammar quite a bit, because Russian grammar is ass too.
      I always find that learning a language while living in the environment that speaks it a lot easier and realistic! I could have never spoken German the way I do without living in it!

  2. I really wish I had your talent for learning languages. I grew up speaking Russian, but can barely speak it now (that video made me lol...I certainly do squat like Slav) and I took German and Spanish in school. It's wonderful that you are fluent in so many and in such diverse sets as well! Thanks for writing this, as I always wondered what it would be like to be able to know do many fluently. (lol that will never happen for me). Your English is near perfect, by the way. Better than some native speakers

    1. Thank you, i am happy this was interesting to read! I always wondered hiw is it to speak only one language and know it 100%, without other ones always pushing through ;)
      And thank you, yet nearly perfect is nit perfect for me! The challenge continues!

  3. The best thing in knowing a lot of language is to understand people that think you can't understand them ^_^ (i like to remember every word ive learned from as many languages as possible...) and as for german language - i LOVE to hear the different accents people have from different countries, listening to those helps a lot to understand other languages as well - keep on learning more languages! :-)

    1. the German dialects is a very exotic thing for me. If you have a dialect, I will most likely push you to demonstrate in to me :P