Across many cultures, language acts as a medium far beyond a means of verbal or written communication. It often acts as a form of expression. Other times, language takes the responsibility of representing national and international power relations. The study of one language, and its various practical implications over time could very well also be symbolic of a community and its developing changes.
Over the past twenty years, I have moved around the United States a great deal. But it was when I was eighteen that I first ventured to work and live independently in a new culture in Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico. While Spanish is widespread across the island, English is also one of the two official languages because Puerto Rico is classified as United States territory. I felt strong and comfortable conversing with locals in English, whether it was in a tourist hot spot or a less popular residential zone. It was not until I ventured to Shanghai, China at the age of nineteen that I first lived in a culture without widespread English. Since it is likely to find only one proficient English speaker in a random group of ten Chinese citizens, I quickly became dependent on my knowledge of Mandarin and let go of my instinctive nature to inquire or converse in English.
The lack of English in China encourages the expat community to improve their Mandarin proficiency levels, which remarkably expedites the cultural immersion and overall experience abroad. The strong prevalence of English in Puerto Rico actually disconnects tourists from seeing the island as much more than a land of exquisite rainforests and exotic beaches. Language goes hand in hand with the culture, history and politics of a region and its story. When we are capable of understanding the native language of a culture, we naturally become more inclined to converse with locals, compare the use of the language or even learn about foreign relations to the language itself. As we learn the language of any land, the story of the culture gradually begins to feel more and more personal.
Israel, on the other hand, acts as a middle ground between the two language extremes of Puerto Rico and China. Israel is identified as the triangle nation, where Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages and English is the second language for many citizens. Most of the public signs in Israel are home to all the three languages, though the size of the fonts or the placements of each language often indicates which of the languages is seen as dominant in the community. What is particularly fascinating to me about the multilingual nation is that there are clear similarities between Hebrew and Arabic, even though the background of Jewish culture quite often clashes with the Arab identity. Where there is tension, there is also common ground.
And even more so in the Israeli languages, there are words that multilingual, fluent speakers struggle to translate directly. Some words to describe certain emotions, feelings or outbursts just cannot be translated to English. What a wonder! There are complete concepts one culture may know of and be capable of expressing that another culture simply cannot. One of the most popular Hebrew phrases here in Tel Aviv is סבבה (Sababa), which typically takes an Israeli citizen a few minutes to describe. From my understanding, we could use this word as a way to forgive and let go of a mistake. We could also use this word to show our great mood of the day. And we could even use this word as an exclamatory statement of applause.
It is a wonderful pleasure to learn the many ways in which language holds unique stories of interaction, expression and authority. These three languages in Israeli culture specifically, among many more minority languages here, offer stories of the entire Middle East and its relations. It is composed of words and phrases that mirror the distinctive culture that has been built and established in the state of Israel over the past sixty to seventy years. Let us immerse ourselves in the languages of the cultures we are experiencing across the global network at New York University, and share the many forms of reflection and representation we have yet to even comprehend!
- Tel Aviv Shuk: Momachi