After a two-week holiday break, we are back with the Sunday Story.
I want to teach you a word in Hebrew: Nicur.
When I was studying at Tel Aviv University, they gave us articles to read that not only helped our Hebrew but were specifically designed to help us integrate into society. The article was about adults learning a second language and how they can experience feelings of nicur when learning a second language in a new country. Nicur means alienation.
It is a different area of the brain that is used for language acquisition than for other types of learning. In addition, it is far easier to learn a language as a child than as an adult. There’s a new study out there saying that adults can learn a new language just as easily as a kid can, but I want to tell you that was not my experience nor the experience of just about anyone I know!
There are reasons:
A child learning a language typically has no other way to communicate. So, he or she will just keep building their skills and vocabulary day after day.
Even if it is a second language, kids are not embarrassed to make mistakes.
Adults are more prone to just revert to their mother tongue, and in Israel, that is easy because over half the population is somewhat proficient in English.
Young people catch a foreign language. They pick it up by listening. But the older you are, you have to study it. You have to memorize words and conjugate verbs over and over again.
And I can tell you that in the Cantor household, my kids were fluent in Hebrew within a year. It took me much longer. And yet I studied much harder.
No, for me, this produced a unique frustration. Number one, I am an introvert. People tend to not believe me when I tell them this because I am so comfortable speaking in front of large crowds. But believe it or not, speaking in front of 10,000 people is far easier for me than mingling with 50 people that I don’t know or don’t know well.
In addition, when I am in those situations, I either hide in plain sight or use my sense of humor. But what if you can’t speak the language? If you can’t understand? What if every time someone else tells a joke, you have to concentrate hard to try and pick up where the punchline is so you can laugh at the joke that you don’t understand?
Elana lived with me in America for the first 15 years of our married life. She is an extroverted extrovert. And, at 22, she picked up English quickly. If she writes something in English, not only does she not care if she makes mistakes, but she also laughs about it. I am a bit more sensitive.
For the first several years in Israel, I became even more introverted. I didn’t want to go to parties or gatherings. Often there would be one other English-only speaker, and I would get paired (stuck) with that person for several hours. It was like sitting at the kiddie table. And sometimes that person would be interesting, and other times, I would be planning my escape.
Of course, for me, I was very driven by the knowledge that God called me to Israel. I knew that he had called me to preach and teach in Hebrew. So giving up was not an option. But imagine being a doctor or a lawyer in another country and then “breaking your teeth” (a Hebrew expression) to learn a new language. People far less accomplished than you, far less knowledgeable than you, look at you as if you are stupid. Your children come home from school speaking Hebrew as if it’s their first language, and you cannot even get directions from somebody without reverting to your mother tongue. This is why a lot of folks give up.
Some will go back to their home country. Others will simply live in an English or Spanish, or Russian ghetto depending on their mother tongue. I know many believers who have lived in Israel far longer than me who have never mastered the language or even really attempted to. My dear brother, Eddie Santoro, a Messianic Jewish leader who moved here with his wife Jackie in the 90s when he was in his 50s, would not be dissuaded. He is now with the Lord, but he was the prototype of a pioneer who was determined to be part of his new culture and homeland. His Hebrew was never perfect, but he loved to speak Hebrew. He would share his faith all the time in Hebrew with Israelis.
Many adult immigrants who arrive here without a driving vision or a natural community or extended family succumb to feelings of alienation. In their home country, they had no problem expressing themselves or telling a joke, or responding to one. Suddenly just ordering food or finding a plumber can be humiliating.
In my case, I did have a driving vision—to teach and preach in Hebrew. And I also have extended family through Elana and a natural community in our congregations. Those three things helped me greatly in overcoming feelings of nicur.