Je suis amoureuse du français. I am in love with French. I began studying the language at age 13, and now that I am nearing 50, I remain a speaker, reader, and writer of this most beautiful of Romance languages. I do not have a photographic memory, but when it came to learning French in middle school and beyond, I often could look once at words or irregular verb conjugations and they’d sear into my brain.
Until middle age, that is. That’s the point at which new words stopped sticking so easily.
Alzheimer’s runs in my family, so I want to be proactive about avoiding, or arresting, the disease, should my DNA be in line to lose that lottery.
There is no known cure or treatment for the disease, of course, but some studies point to learning a language later in life as a promising way to keep the brain pliant, if not even resistant to the onset or otherwise rapid decline of dementia.
Research points to foreign-language learning as an effective way to develop the brain’s cognitive reserve in the same way other mentally and socially stimulating activities do.
Some studies also show that people who are bilingual benefit even more, cognitively speaking, from taking on an additional language.
I hope they are correct; I’ve taken on Hebrew.
As a kid, I learned the 22-consonant Hebrew alphabet, the sound of each letter, and how to pronounce and read the words from right to left. The purpose then was strictly for synagogue liturgy. It wasn’t until my late-30s that I recognized Hebrew as the living, spoken language of more than 9 million people worldwide.
About eight years ago, I enrolled in a Modern Hebrew class. It was time to put aside the tight-lipped exactitude of French for the glottal fricatives of Hebrew. My brain would thank me.
Modern Hebrew comes from its ancient counterpart and was saved only in the 20th century from the dustbin of history.
I used to find Hebrew guttural and harsh on the ears. But much like once-bitter wine turns complex and enjoyable, today I find Hebrew’s throat-clearing sounds pleasant to my ears. Plus, it’s just plain fun to look at squiggles and understand them as words. My father-in-law once said that Hebrew to the English speaker looks upside-down. It does, and that difficulty is part of the appeal.
Less appealing—if not downright frustrating—is how hard I find it today to capture Hebrew as a spoken and not merely a phonetic language. Hebrew is a challenge.
It’s a language bereft of written vowels. Hebrew speakers just know where the vowels should go and how to pronounce the words and their meaning. This Hebrew learner does not.
Particularly vexing in Hebrew is its numbers system. Numbers — like nouns and verb conjugations — are gendered. But masculine numbers have a feminine ending. Apparently even Israelis often get numbers wrong.
According to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, which categorizes languages according to difficulty for the native English speaker, Hebrew is a Category 4 language. Arabic, a fellow Semitic language, is a Category 5, while French is a Category 1. Thank you, FSI, for making me feel better! But I am guessing that part of the challenge has to do with my aging brain.
And my aging sense of propriety (read: self-awareness). Whereas I was once quick to correct my fellow classmates in French, I am now the plodding foreign-language learner.
In one Hebrew class my painstaking efforts to translate a text elicited a loud sigh from another student in my group.
Another student routinely blurted out words for me before I had a chance to remember them myself.
Eventually, I stopped participating in class. It was too infuriating. Why couldn’t I grasp vocabulary and grammar quickly, like I used to?
When that class ended, I took a break for about two months and then queried an Israeli language tutor I knew. By the end of the summer I started fresh (via Skype) with him as my private tutor.
For a year now, I’ve worked with my (very patient) tutor once a week, and I’m no longer as afraid to speak, read, and write Hebrew. My struggles are only between us, as are the corrections. Now, sometimes, when speaking French, a Hebrew word pops in my head first.
I know from my early progress in French that this means I’m catching on, grasping the new language. I’d like to believe it also means my brain is working to become more flexible. Ultimately, I’m having fun learning this ancient tongue as a spoken language.
Recently I returned from an eight-day trip to Israel, where I did not exactly feel silver-tongued among rapid-speaking Israelis, but I did find my way to and from bathrooms, successfully purchased exactly the goods I wanted, and, in one case, got half my money back from a crooked bus driver who tried swindling me.
Ultimately after a lot of hard work, I felt a little victorious – for taking on something tough and rewarding and for doing something good for my brain.