Why Living in a Foreign Country Makes Me Love Words Even More
Last year, I moved to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. I expected to encounter a lot of things, like culture shock, change of weather, the stress of finding a writing job, etc. What I wasn’t expecting was to fall even more in love with words.
It’s not that learning a new language has made me appreciate my native language more. I actually think Hebrew is a fascinating and logical alternative to English’s balagan (Hebrew for mess). Rather, learning a new language and the challenges it has presented has made me appreciate all languages.
It’s also made me realize some things about words and being a writer.
01. I embrace being a word person in English because I’m not one in Hebrew.
Words are everything to me and I work hard, even in casual conversations, to land on the right word at the right time. I believe words paint a picture in your head, and descriptive words are your paintbrush.
The problem is, I don’t know most of those words in Hebrew. My paintbrush feels pretty freaking dry.
I hate that I can’t express myself properly, so I’m hesitant to attempt more in-depth conversations. Sure, we can talk about the weather, but only if there’s a normal amount of rain, sun, or snow. If it’s drizzling or pouring, overcast or scorching, hailing or blizzarding–it’s still just raining, sunny or snowy in my vocabulary. And that frustrates the hell out of me.
It also further motivates me in my writing. If my canvas is blank in Hebrew, you better believe it will be a masterpiece in English.
02. I appreciate working with other writers because “close enough” isn’t close enough.
In Hebrew classes, my teachers tell me not to look up the meaning of each new word. “Try to figure it out through context,” they tell me. “It’s not that important to understand every single word in a sentence.”
Except that, to me, it is super important.
I get hung up trying to understand what every single word means. I want to rewrite short stories into English to make sure I truly understand what they’re saying. It’s not direct translation that I care about. It’s sentiment–and sentiment is specific. I want to find the English equivalents of the sentiment behind the words and sentences.
Just as I enjoy painting pictures with my words, I also want to see the picture an author has painted in Hebrew. Not being able to do that kills me, because I feel like I’m missing out and (even worse) doing a disservice to a fellow writer.
Because of this, I’ve been even more grateful to work with other writers here at Wix. Writers would never settle for a word that is “close enough” and I love being able to chat about nuances and why one slightly different word can change a whole sentence.
03. I see every day as an opportunity to learn more in both English and Hebrew.
When I first got to Israel, I did an intensive Hebrew class that was 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 5 months. As I struggled to learn a new language, I told myself that I just had to throw myself in so that I could get to the end sooner.
The end, in my mind, was total fluency. I would know all the words. It’s now been a year since I got here and here’s the reality: I’m not fluent (I’m barely conversational) and there is no end.
But there’s no end to learning English, either. Webster’s Dictionary has 470,000 entries, but one study found that most adults in America have a vocabulary of only 42,000 words by the time they turn 20.
In other words, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever know every single word.
Isn’t that amazing?
That’s so many wonderful, powerful, horrific, specific and expressive words to learn. Every day presents a new opportunity to get a tiny bit closer to knowing all 470,000 entries.
Data from that study also suggests that adults learn 1 word roughly every 2 days. Realizing just how many words are out there–and how many I don’t know–has challenged me to learn faster than that. Turns out those “word of the day” desk calendars are nothing to be laughed at.
04. I marvel at how words connect people together.
If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you’ve probably had the following experience. You read a sentence and are able to identify almost every word, yet you have no clue what the sentence actually means. How can that be?
Most of the time, this is because of idioms. For example, there’s a saying in Hebrew that literally translates to “on the tip of the fork”. If I try hard, I could make an educated guess that it has a similar meaning to “dip a toe in the pond” or “so close, you can almost taste it”.
The saying is actually the equivalent of “the tip of the iceberg”. But let’s think about that: in order to understand an expression in Hebrew, I have to conjure up expressions I know in English. But in both languages, the expressions themselves have no relevant meaning.
To me, this speaks volumes about the power of words to connect people. Despite having 470,000 words with literal translations to choose from, American English speakers have somehow come to a shared agreement that “the tip of the iceberg” does not refer to an iceberg, or even ice at all. It’s made me appreciate the role of words in society even more.
05. I don’t take the ability to write for granted anymore.
Writing has always been second-nature for me, as I think it is for most writers. My ability to play with words, my intuition for what sounds good and what doesn’t, my strong technical understanding of punctuation rules and spelling… It was always just what I did and what I was good at.
Not being able to do that in the language everyone speaks around me has made see things differently. It has made me love writing even more. It’s part of what makes my job at Wix so fun (although my awesome coworkers don’t hurt either). I marvel at my ability to do this thing that I can’t do in my newest language. I’m so grateful for this skill that I’ve gotten to hone over the years and I appreciate it more now than ever before.
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By Jenni Nadler, Special Projects Writer at Wix