I have heard the horror stories of families that moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh and 5 years later barely know a stitch of Hebrew. This was one of the factors that guided us to a community like Ma’alot – a place where Americans would be a very, very small fraction and learning Hebrew would be imperative for any successful interactions with the natives. Were we wrong. Completely wrong.
We had no idea that the majority of the population knows some English and many are quite fluent. In fact, it has been difficult to find an Israeli who’s English is worse that my Hebrew. It’s shameful.
“Caveman Hebrew” is, for the record, statements like “Eyfo…” (Where is …), “Ani ratze…” (I want…), “Ani tsarich…” (I need…) and other simple short requests. There is no masculine or feminine, no past/present/future tense – just a focus on getting the right shorishim, and if possible in the right sequence.
What’s worse is that if I succeed in asking the right question – I get a response. At that point I have three options 1) try to figure out something from the response (including hand gestures) to guide me, 2) agree (nod my head and say, “kain” or “nachon“) and thank them politely and walk away with no idea what was said, 3) confess that I speak only “ktsat evrit“, ask if they speak English and pose then question again.
My prefered response is to say, “la-at, la-at” (slowly, slowly) and piece together the response, but at that point they know what’s going on and they shift into English – ruining yet another chance to learn a word or two.
So who knows English? Almost everybody, except the Charadiem (in general) who are educated in the yeshiva system and do not have foreign language requirements. For the rest of the population, English is introduced in the public schools (nonreligious and religious) at about 3rd grade and they have it every year. Not only that, but they want to know English better, so it becomes the standard language for conversations.
Many people who I have spoken with were a little “rusty” with their English in the beginning, but after a few conversations their confidence went up, and I made, yet another English-speaking Israeli friend. Honestly, I feel that after two years of living in Ma’alot everybody in the city will be speaking English, and I will still be speaking “Caveman Hebrew’. Once again, it’s shameful.