Pretty good isn’t good enough.

November 9, 2011

“Your Hebrew is pretty good. You don’t have an accent.”

Much in the way that I approach a dance class ready to pick up and produce myself the fine qualities of movement, so too do I seem to be able to imitate the sounds of everyday Hebrew speech here. My vocabulary is in general limited to the basic tourist lexicon, but I’m able to at least make the words I can say sound natural and conversational. I’m trying very hard to catch on.

As an international dance student in a country whose language I do not speak fluently, I fight a battle of epic proportions every day. Because I do not understand many of the words said in class or in a simple conversation, I am considered mute, or even dumb. I can’t speak my mind. So to some, it may seem I don’t have one. It’s rather curious to see how much speech shapes you personality.

I have realized that I take for granted what spoken words do to augment the educational process. How many times a day do you ask someone to clarify what they’re trying to tell you? How much about yourself and your understanding of the world do you disclose to others, and how often!? And in the classroom? When do you ask for clarifications, or request another demonstration? In the classes that integrate even a little English into the studio, I am able to follow just fine. In other courses that are taught mainly in Hebrew, I’m forced to call upon my other communicative skills.

It’s all about socialization, in general and in dance! I won’t lie:  the language barrier is tough.


What I’m Experiencing

My choreography teacher does put forth double the effort to help accommodate the couple English-speakers she has in the class. She carries class discussions speaking in both Hebrew and English, most times simply repeating herself in each language. For this, I am truly grateful.

Some of my studio classes are taught in hybrid English and Hebrew, at varying proportions between the two. These are my favorite classes because I’m able to make associations between the languages through the movement, and eventually learn the words by asking someone next to me. Best of all, everyone is given the opportunity to learn new words. A level playing field.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as accommodating. In Graham 4 the other day, the class had an informal discussion about the Graham Company performance we had seen. I wanted to share my experience, but because I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, and there was little to no translation, I didn’t participate in the discussion. I was angry. But what was I angry at? The teacher? The people around me? Myself? I was frustrated at the situation. I felt unwelcome in a way.

Not to mention… Graham is a movement language that I do not speak as it is. Graham in Hebrew is quite a double-whammy of non-communication. But I digress.

Among the students, there’s a good amount of communication. I’m good at “how are you?” and “good morning.” People are interested in those quick conversations. Some students offer to translate instructions, or teach us new words and phrases.

“I’m going to teach you guys Hebrew this year,” a student said to us yesterday, jokingly. I’ll take her offer willingly at face value …even though I’m pretty sure she only offered because she refuses to speak or listen to anything in English.


How I Find Understanding

There are context clues all around you that tell you what’s going on. You don’t need to know the words the professors are saying, but can tell from the tone of their voices that something was wrong in the last rep, that they’re making an example out of a specific student, or that they’re satisfied with our performance. You may not know the words the professors are saying, but the instructions for technical combinations are eventually told with a meter, so you can understand the timing.

Never had I thought twice about how physically demonstrating movement can be instruction enough. The demonstrating bodies speak the instructions clearly, non-vocally.

Ballet is somewhat of a godsend because it’s mostly in French.


How I Participate

I try to participate as much as I can, in any language that’s accepted. In this dance learning community, I want to be known as someone that is serious about what I want to learn. I want my professors to be able get to know my learning style so they can help me better.

I tread lightly in class with how much English I use, and I stumble when I try it in Hebrew.
I wonder when I’ll be able to walk (and talk) naturally.


What I Want

I want people to know who I am and what I think.

I don’t want to be mute.
I don’t want to be just another dancer that’s only here for a year.
I don’t want my opinion to be invalid because I can’t relate it to others.
I don’t want to be a passive international student—quiet, mousey, and altogether easily ignored.


In Conclusion

Do I expect everyone to speak in English? Definitely not. But as a student and a human being, I just want to have a fair chance at learning everything I can. And that requires figuring out some kind of effective way to communicate with one another. Students, teachers, and international students—beyachad (“together” in Hebrew).

Did my one-month Ulpan not teach me the right things? Now that I’m not taking Hebrew anymore, am I not trying hard enough to pick it up in class and in everyday life? These questions and more are on my mind.

Like I said before, I’m trying hard to catch on. But it looks like if I really want to feel satisfied, I’m going to have to try harder. I am, after all, just a visitor. I can’t expect everyone to change for me, so if I want my experience to be different, I’m going to have to do something about it myself.


  1. When I first started reading this post, I thought of our impressions and how well we can imitate people and situations. =) Miss you! This post also makes me think of all of the international students I’ve encountered in my college career. I always felt bad for them! And now you’re one of them!

    I hope you pick up a lot as you journey through the school year! And I hope you find your means of communicating. I know how important that is. Send me messages!

  2. I think about our skills all the time, sister dear! You would love learning Hebrew and using it everyday. The international students are always on my mind. I always felt bad for them, and now I’M the one that feels stuck! We’ll Skype soon.

  3. […] overdramatizing, but I believe I have the license to write what I want.) The communication issues I had discussed in a previous post came up again today. Yes, I seem to have scheduled myself for a biweekly hour and a half session […]

  4. […] overdramatizing, but I believe I have the license to write what I want.) The communication issues I had discussed in a previous post came up again today. Yes, I seem to have scheduled myself for a biweekly hour and a half session […]

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