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Connection Across Language Barriers

This post is written by Abigail, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion.


I was leaving the little Russian shop around the corner from my apartment and tried out saying “spasiba” the Russian word for “thank you”. The owner grinned at me and said something in Russian or Hebrew I didn’t understand. He knows I speak little Hebrew and he doesn’t speak much English so my attempt at a single Russian word made an impact on his day. Whether at volunteer placements, my host family, shopping, or social events, I am entirely dependent on others to translate or speak English, or I fumble through with google. Yet people are endlessly patient with me, and more than that they encourage and challenge my new language skills. It is this way in the many places I go, both parties working to understand each other.


One of my placements is working with 6 to 8 year-olds to learn basic concepts in English. It has been slow progress for all of us. I have to push myself to learn Hebrew vocabulary for the lessons, and they work hard to learn English. These young children are even teaching me Hebrew. They often laugh at my pronunciation and are willing to repeat themselves over and over again until I say things correctly. This has inspired me to maintain calm perseverance when I look at the progress, or lack thereof, being made with different students in various locations. This past week, two of the youngest girls from my placements were out with their moms, and upon seeing me they ran over to give me a hug. Their mom told me she saw me on the bus that morning. Even though that was all we could say to each other because we didn’t have a common language; I understood that I had become a little part of their lives.


At the Middle school where I volunteer, there are a few teens who want to talk so much that they often have to be told to sit down several times in order for the class to start. It is not solely that they want to practice their English, it is because they are curious about my life. We share books we are reading, or shows that we are watching, the simple everyday things that still matter a lot. It is these connections that carry over to the youth center, where we can just hang out and have fun. Not only do fun conversations occur; sometimes more serious conversations also arise. How things have been difficult for their family, or the racial and general stigmatization of this neighborhood of Ramat Eliyahu, are tough topics in which I have been privileged to be a participant and listener. This community is so diverse with challenges in which these teens face daily. They bring things with them into both learning and social environments, yet they are still kids with a youthful resilience that can make things like the new Spider-man movie details way more important than anything else…maybe it is good I don’t understand Hebrew well enough to hear all the spoilers…

We were given the opportunity to have host families. Host families are a local family that routinely has us over for dinner and welcomes us into their homes. At my host family’s home, I don’t understand many of the sentences spoken, yet we still have been able to connect through common life experiences. The mom of my host family was born in Ethiopia, and they had a garden and a few animals there. Having grown up on a farm, I can ask questions and hear stories because small-scale sustainable agriculture is similar in many countries. I may not be able to tell someone what every word means, but I understand the context of the ideas. She has said that I will be fluent in Hebrew by the time I leave, and that is the inspiration I need in environments where I feel language is insensible. Anyone listening in on what I call a conversation in these settings would hear the language skills of a toddler trying to keep up with adults. Just like a young child, I have been embraced and encouraged with every interaction. The impact of encouragement in a learning environment is a powerful lesson that I try to take into each placement where I am in a teaching role.


Connection through communication is a two-way exchange. While I have the useful skill of being a native English speaker that is beneficial to the population here, it is worth nothing if there is no engagement. If I didn’t live here in the same neighborhood, and shop in the same places, and ride the same busses, and hang out where they do, there would be less of a bridge. It is in these places of recurring interactions that my ineptitude at Hebrew brings English to the forefront. There are teens with hopes of becoming doctors and journalists who struggle with English learning. This struggle is intensified by knowing they will need it to follow their dreams for the future. I am amazed when they get excited to hear that I speak English and they want to talk to me. It is a privilege to learn from them about their cultures all while doing what I came here to do, helping make English learning a bit easier for them.


There is so much bravery and vulnerability needed when speaking non-fluently. It is my efforts in Hebrew and their efforts in English, along with so much humor and patience, that develop a connection among us. We are all diverse people from different places with unique cultural beliefs and practices and multiple languages. Diving into that experience and establishing relationships is a significant part of the learning that we do with the Yahel Fellowship. It is the daily process of getting up and going out the door with the intention to talk to a new person or remembering a previous conversation or simply being there when needed, that makes a fellows’ role influential; both to ourselves and to the communities where we live. Ten months is not nearly long enough to establish a connection with every person I meet, but I know there are many memories being made, and ideas being challenged, and languages being learned.