Monday, February 28, 2011

The Kangaroo in the Doorway

Did you see what was in the doorway? Yes. Really? Did you see the kangaroo that was in the doorway? Yes. Really?! You saw the kangaroo in the doorway???

Everyone in my unit laughed at the end of this exchange between me and an urban combat instructor. I could not follow what he was saying in Hebrew, and so figured saying yes to his insistent questions was the safe bet. Not this time. Not to the kangaroo in the doorway!

Language will not be an issue, assured the senior officer in the entrance interview for my former unit. You'll see, your Hebrew will improve in no time.

How right and wrong that officer was. My Hebrew has of course improved dramatically in the army. I enlisted with ten years of poorly taught Jewish day school Hebrew, plus a few months of pre-draft anxious cramming. All that background left me with the basic grammar, lots of vocab, and absolutely zero confidence to speak the language. I only aced the IDF’s basic Hebrew exam in October 2009—and avoiding getting relegated to a month long army ulpan for new immigrants—because I flirted with the girl soldier administering the test, and had already memorized in advance the answers to her questions. And then came the army, three months of basic training, and boom, I was speaking and understanding at near native fluency.

Since basic, my Hebrew skills have improved less dramatically. The leveling effect reflects the fact that I have all but mastered the Hebrew the army can teach me. Army Hebrew, it turns out, is a dialect of the broader language, a modest pool of commands, curse words and monkey-see monkey-do type interactions. While my funny American accent still has not disappeared, I am nearly fluent in the limited lexicon of army Hebrew. Ask me to discuss the economy, or to describe the mixed emotions I have in nearing my twenty-sixth year as a soldier in the army of Israel, and my Hebrew quickly falters. Perhaps this is what the air force officer was intimating: No need to worry about my Hebrew, since the dumbed down tongue spoken by soldiers could be quickly mastered.

What the officer failed to appreciate is the language is about far more than communication. Command of a language brings a confidence I lacked during the critical early months of my service, when impressions were made that defined one's position in my former elite unit. Poor Hebrew, the inability to communicate clearly and quickly in high-pressure situations (and what situation in the army is not high-pressure?), robbed me of my ability to assert leadership skills that are part of who I am. Instead I passed through much of my early training as a shadow of my true self, insecure and frustrated at my own passivity.

Even as my poor Hebrew skills inhibited me from properly expressing myself, they earned me an undesired reputation as something of a class clown. The gibberish that escapes my mouth in my attempt to speak Hebrew, not to mention my unmistakable American accent, is an endless source of mirth to my peers. In my former unit, it was enough to shout achat esrei (eleven), to bring everyone to tears with the memory of the accented way I once pronounced the number during a countdown. My current unit has seized upon the phrase ze kimo (it is like), as the doorstop to endless laughs. While some guys make an effort to correct my endless grammar mistakes, everyone revels in the laughs at my expense. If I laugh as well, it is because I do not mind a few jokes at my own expense, plus I appreciate how all the fun and games makes me one of the more popular guys. Popularity is not the same thing as respect, however, and it is not hard to see how all the joking turns me into a soldier few of my peers take seriously or see as a potential leader.

Officers are better at controlling the urge to laugh at a new immigrant's poor Hebrew. But they are far more susceptible to deciding what kind of a soldier I am based on the skewed impression presented by my limited language skills. To say that my poor Hebrew played an outsize role in my first officer voting me off the island, and in my second officer deciding I would not attend course makim, may sound like a stretch. But when you consider how broadly language shapes human interaction, my poor Hebrew may have a far more critical impact on my army service than even I appreciate.

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