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English, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

English speakers, or Anglos, as they are called in Israel, are lucky to be fluent in the most widely used language in the world. As the lingua franca of the 21st century, English is used globally in science, business, academia, technology, and a host of other fields. Given the right opportunities, this will serve anglo olim well in their new home. However, in some cases having English as your mother tongue, may feel like more of a challenge as olim settle into their new surroundings. Keeping a sense of humor and a positive attitude about some of the wonders and blunders of getting by in Israel as a native English speaker will be important for newcomers as they adjust to their new country, culture, and language.

English, the Good

Being born an English speaker is truly a gift in today’s world. English is the most spoken language, even though English is only third in numbers of native speakers worldwide. In the context of Aliyah, approximately 85% of Israelis speak some level of English, which is taught in most schools starting in elementary grades. Their love of the language is apparent on store signs, clothing, school supplies, and any number of products that display English words to adorn and embellish, often with a creative flair for spelling or translation. Despite its overwhelming presence, even in many official signs on roads or in offices, English has not been recognized and an official language of Israel since its creation in 1948. However, English does maintain a role similar to that of an official language as is apparent in its usage across the country.

As a recent oleh to Israel, however, these facts may not provide much help or comfort when struggling in limited Hebrew at a government office, with a rental contract, or arranging for a visit with the local plumber. A typical experience was once described by a new oleh who was trying to alert a bus driver that he needed to retrieve his luggage from the compartment below the bus, but the door was not open. Rather than saying the door was not open, or lo petuach, the passenger said lo tapuach, not an apple, by accident. The bus driver has a good laugh at the mistake, saying it’s not an apple, and not an orange either.

To this oleh it may have felt like no one had ever made the same mistake, but one of the first things to remember is that everybody makes mistakes. Many ulpan teachers will tell you most Israelis, including native Hebrew speakers, are making grammatical or spelling mistakes in their Hebrew all day long. Again, this may not help the new speaker trying to get out an understandable sentence, but knowing your questions or comments don’t have to come out perfect can help, even as fluency seems far away. As any language learner can confirm, learning a language is a matter of using it or losing it. Practice is critical, so those new words picked up in ulpan or on the radio should be shared and practiced in order to make it into one’s daily vocabulary.

If this experience is becoming all too common, one area where new olim can get the help they need without the stress of breaking their teeth on a new language is TCS Telecom, the communications experts who speak your language and know where you are coming from. Anglo customer service representatives will help explain and explore the different options available for TV, internet, cell, and home phones, and even international lines, all in the language Anglos understand. And at the end of the day, or month, no translation will be necessary, as even the bills come in English.

            Another positive sign for English speakers is the fact that English usage is on the rise in the Israeli workforce, which helps not only on the receiving end of goods and services, but increases job prospects for Anglo olim, as well.  While English has typically been reserved for the upper management of multinational organizations the prevalence of English throughout the world has made it more of a necessity in a variety of fields. In an article printed some years ago in the English newspaper, Haartez, “You're in Israel – Speak English”, the increasing pressure to know English in the workforce is described in fields such as technical writing, logistics, and manufacturing, where machine manuals, communication, and documentation are often in English. This serves as an important reminder to Anglo parents that the English spoken at home shouldn’t be taken for granted. Helping children develop their English can only help them in their future prospects, even as they live and learn in Hebrew. Many children of immigrants decide they no longer need the language they spoke as children and prefer the language they are surrounded by at school and with friends. However, the ability to speak, read, and even write in English will always be of benefit to those who maintain a good command of it.

English, the Bad, and even the Ugly

Living in Israel there is not only the opportunity to hear and make mistakes in spoken Hebrew, but the opportunities to find creative spelling and translation into English abound. For a steady stream of examples check out the Facebook page Weerd, Mizpelt Inglish in Izreal which is dedicated to enjoying the English mistakes at public establishments, official posts, and consumer goods, to name a few examples. Often by deconstructing the mistakes a student of language can find ways to understand the differences and see a new way to formulate the ideas that start in English, but need to come out in Hebrew.  Direct translation doesn’t work due to the various differences in the two languages, but seeing how Israelis think when using English can be a helpful, and even entertaining, tool.

As is evident in the Facebook group listed above, many mistakes in English are found around the country. One reason is that Israelis love to use their English, even when it’s not up to the level of making themselves understood. Many times when trying to practice Hebrew or just getting through a normal day, Israelis hearing an Anglo accent will revert to English, which isn't always as helpful as they think. In the moment it may be a frustrating turn of events, but you can use this tendency to your advantage. Find a Hebrew speaking neighbor, in real life or virtually, who wants to learn English and make an arrangement to help each other practice. Or better yet, find a volunteer opportunity, to help others with English. Using English to help others will come back in many ways, such as learning more about other people, cultures, and yourself. There are even ways to help during a pandemic.

So while it’s always an adventure adjusting to life in Israel, it’s good to know in one of the most fundamental areas of our lives, namely communication with friends, neighbors, and colleagues, there are some ways to use your skills and find humor while becoming Israeli. What are some of the benefits and the challenges you found coming to Israel as an Anglo oleh. Let us know in the comments below.

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