Not my Mother’s Tongue: Hebrew vs Japanese

Public speaking terrifies a lot of people. I talk for a living. I can empathise. I really can.

Trying to keep my hormone-crazed and moody teenagers engaged is a daily challenge that I enjoy rising to, but undoubtedly fail at miserably from time to time.

But if there’s one thing more terrifying than public speaking, it’s public speaking in your second, third, or fourth language in front of a bunch of native speakers.


Seven years ago, when I was a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I studied my very first foreign language as an adult. Hebrew University uses the immersion method and teachers always always ALWAYS speak to you in Hebrew.

I had an Ashkenazi teacher and a Sephardic teacher: both of whom had very different accents.

It was an intimidating experience. 

During the first week of my summer Ulpan program, my teacher asked me to read a passage in Hebrew out loud.

I am not Jewish. I did have a bat mitzvah. I couldn’t read or write Hebrew. Most of my peers could.

My teacher asked me to stand up. I really didn’t want to. I shook my head vehemently. 

She ordered me to. 

I felt like a kid in primary school being put on the spot. I was 22 at the time and didn’t appreciate being forced to do something I didn’t want to do.

I stood up and struggled to make out those alphabets strung together with no vowels to guide me.

Oh no. Here it comes. 

The hushed gasps.

Those awful giggles.

I may not know Hebrew, but I can read body language. Public humiliation is no way to teach. I learnt a long time ago that being different is never easy.

But I’m human. It still hurt.

I also failed every single Hebrew exam for the next month. My self-esteem took a beating.

Seven years later, I’m a language teacher myself. If there’s one motto I live by: it’s praise publicly and scold privately.

I can and do encourage my kids to speak up – but I never force them.

If they’re not ready, they’re not ready.

Embarrassing someone in front of their peers is a really really REALLY bad idea.

And as much respect as I have for the structure that comes with formal education, a classroom is not the place to learn a language. All a classroom can do is introduce it.

It’s up to you to use it.

Learning outdated language, grammar rules that no one follows, and passing exams that heavily privilege the written (as opposed to spoken and auditory) aspects of a language is a sure way to ensure a lot of confusion when you’re out on the street trying to haggle.

We all spoke and understood our mother tongues well before we learnt to read and write them. When we emerged from our mothers’ wombs, we knew and recognised their voices. This privilege that we give the written word in language exams has never made any sense to me.

Ah well. We educators do what we have to.

We teach the test. The sad bloody truth.

What did nurture my love for Hebrew was sitting down with a bible some two months later and understanding the delicate nuances of an ancient language that simply couldn’t be translated from Hebrew to English.


The book of Genesis has been and will always be incredibly close to my heart. Knowing and understanding Hebrew has deepened my understanding of this story that a lot of us think we know all too well.

Even now, some seven years after leaving Israel, I sometimes sit in my room at night, and read the bible with English and Hebrew side by side. I am amazed at all the depth and history that Hebrew can capture.

Sorry folks, the English translation just doesn’t cut it.

When I left Israel some 7 months later, I had aced my exams.

Might sound like a success story to you – but the truth of the matter is, in the past three years, I’ve had no one to speak in Hebrew to on a daily basis.

And if you don’t use it, you will lose it.

I lost Hebrew and gained Japanese.

Left to right. Up to down. Top to bottom. These are the basic rules in place for learning Kanji: the Chinese characters currently in use in the Japanese writing system. 

The Koreans and Vietnamese abolished the use of these logograms sometime back, but it’s still in use here in the land of the rising sun.


For basic literary, you need to know over 2000 of these. And it doesn’t end there. Each of these characters has a kun’yomi: the traditional Japanese reading, as well as an on’yomi: derived from Chinese.

There’s also Hiragana: a phonetic lettering system and Katakana: used for transcription of foreign language words into Japanese.

When I first arrived in Japan – I finally understood what it means to be illiterate. I couldn’t read or write a damn thing.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect people to speak to me in English. I never do. I’ve also lived in other non-English speaking countries before. In addition to the 5 languages that I grew up speaking, I also learnt another 4 languages as an adult.

But… Japanese has been the most… unnecessarily complicated language I’ve ever come into contact with.

To think I haven’t even touched on casual, polite, formal, informal and honorary Japanese.

God help us all.

Trying to get people to stop speaking to me in Keigo (respectful language) has been an exercise in frustration.

Fortunately, most of the women I come into contact with, stop speaking Keigo the moment they see my confused (and irritated) expression. Unfortunately, many of the men I come into contact get tongue tied and begin sweating. 

It’s a man woman thing.

The accent, pronunciation, lingo and style of speaking is so vastly different between men and women that I am often completely bewildered when Japanese men speak to me.

Another man woman thing?

Unlike Hebrew, I’ve largely studied Japanese on my own via textbooks, TV programs, songs and day to day interactions. I’m one of those ‘learn-by-doing’ people who has picked up a lot just from being immersed in the culture.

But it’s my time in Israel that gave me that thick skin. I am not afraid to royally mess it up. These days when I humiliate myself in public, I just laugh and shake it off.

Being different is a strength. I’m older now. It doesn’t hurt one bit. 

Although I don’t think I’ll sit down to read a book in Japanese anytime soon – I can read food menus, shop at the supermarket, fill most forms on my own, as well as read a vast majority of road signs and the like.


Long story short: I don’t need to depend on anyone to take care of me. The best way to be.

Interdependent? Yes, of course.

Codependent? Hell no. I’d rather drop dead.

In the event that I can’t read the menu or find myself stumbled, it’s not beyond me to ask the wait staff or the poor soul sitting next to me to read it out to me. Japanese people are polite and usually willing to help. And I’m not afraid to ask for it.

Nor should you be.

Be kind to the non-native speaker who talks to you in your mother tongue. It’s not easy. Unless you have the guts to do what they do – forgive them and don’t judge them harshly.

And if you hear an accent that doesn’t resemble yours – get over it.

Empathise. Empathise. EMPATHISE.

And above everything else.

Be brave. Be adventurous.

Life is just too damn bloody short. 


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