Monday, May 12, 2014

The Foreign Feeling

Millions of people have immigrated as adults to countries whose official language is different from theirs.  The minute they say they open their mouths, people identify them as foreigners, regardless of how many years they have lived in that country.  As a personal example, my mother has lived in the United States for over 60 years while I am in Israel for 25 years.  We are still foreigners and identified as such.  Our experience applies to the millions of immigrants around the world.

Israelis are very accepting of immigrants since almost everybody is not more than a generation or two removed from that status.  Still, without intending to offend, some Israelis treat non-natives in frankly annoying ways. For example, they significantly slow down their speech and use overly simple words, as if we are small children with limited understanding. In other cases, they switch to my native tongue, English, not even giving me a chance to prove that I know Hebrew. The most annoying comment I have received is “You still have an accent.”  Most people who immigrated as adults keep their native accent to one degree or another, without any connection to their knowledge of the language.  Henry Kissinger was a good example of that.

Other attitudes don’t bother me.  I have no problem with a mortgage counselor reminding me to ask if I have any question. Even native Israelis have problem with legal/banking language, incidentally my specialization in translating. I don’t mind friends correcting my Hebrew mistakes.  Otherwise, how would I improve my language?   I find it completely natural to ask a native speaker to review anything I write in Hebrew.  I want to make a good impression and know that pride has a heavy price.  So, I ask my wife to edit my Hebrew.

So, for most immigrants who came as adults, the second language never completely becomes the first language.  We have our mistakes, hesitations, and accents, which nothing to do with our intelligence or knowledge of the language itself.  As Aretha Franklin sang so well, all immigrants want R E S P E C T.

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