Language Learning: Hebrew, French, and Japanese

By Samara Cogan

I inherited many things from my father. His smile, his quiet persistence, and his inability to retain a language other than English are a few examples of the things we had in common. His first and final attempt to learn Hebrew was the Torah portion he was required to read for his Bar Mitzvah. He ended up memorizing a recording of the portion, and after the ceremony, he never thought about Hebrew again.

I, too, struggled to learn Hebrew. Though in my case, it wasn't for my Bat Mitzvah (thank you, Folkshul, for not having a language requirement!). My next door neighbor, who was a bit more observant in her Judaism than I was, took me on as a Hebrew student when we were both in middle school. This lasted for one whole afternoon, and then we never spoke of it again. I can't pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Was it the new alphabet? Was it reading the letters backwards? Whatever the reason, I just didn't get it.

Next up was my attempt to learn French. This lasted a bit longer than one afternoon. I took French classes for six years in middle and high school and one semester of French in college. The root of my struggle to learn French was easy to suss out: I hated speaking in front of other people. I got that from my dad, too! Speaking in front of others in English was nerve wracking enough, but speaking (and making mistakes) in front of other people in French? My worst nightmare. I dreaded each class, but I managed to get passing grades. Writing and listening balanced out how badly I stumbled during speaking lessons. I still have some French vocabulary retained; pamplemousse is a favorite of mine. But other than that, I haven't practiced speaking, reading, or writing in French for years, and much of what I learned has faded away.

All of this brings me to my current efforts to learn another language: Japanese. This may seem like a random choice, but it is related to my father. During the Vietnam War, he was stationed at a military base in Okinawa, Japan. He developed a taste for sushi, adopted a dog (RIP Eloise), and picked up a tiny bit of Japanese. He's the reason I know how to use chopsticks, and his love for Japan is reflected in all of the pieces of art in our house that he brought back with him after he was finished serving. I have wanted to visit Japan for years, particularly to see Okinawa and Tokyo. Now that I have enough money saved up and a date in mind, it's time to buckle down and learn some Japanese!

The difference in my language-learning endeavor this time is that I have a personally motivating and specific goal in mind. I want to learn enough conversational Japanese to make my trip more enjoyable. I have heard that the Japanese are usually encouraging of visitors who try to speak the language, even if they make mistakes. I'm not focusing on Kanji (characters used in the Japanese writing system), and I don't have to learn every Japanese word ever uttered. All I have to do is study common Japanese phrases that are useful while traveling. Still a challenge, but not impossible for me to accomplish.

Who knows? Maybe my study of the Japanese language will reignite the spark in me that gave up on French and Hebrew! We shall see.