Memoir: Language exchange and finding the best coffee on campus

Eve O’Dea

I’ve wanted to learn how to speak Hebrew since I didn’t get a Bat Mitzvah when I was 12. I completely understand why my interfaith parents didn’t want to lean too much towards one particular way of raising me, but I’m still jealous of my cousins and friends who got some pretty awesome parties and had the opportunity to study a unique language.

At this year’s Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) celebration at Hillel BC, we were greeting the year 5778 with the traditional apples and honey. I began speaking with a young woman from Israel and I told her how much I wanted to learn Hebrew. She told me that she had a friend who wanted to improve their English and proposed the idea that she and I could do a sort of exchange of languages. The idea was exciting and I, to my own surprise, said yes.

Before our first meeting, I was pretty nervous. I had never taught anyone English and I had next to no skill in Hebrew, apart from Shalom and Mazel Tov. Hebrew is even more difficult to learn due to the fact that it uses a completely different set of letters, the Aleph-bet.

I met Ofir outside the bookstore and we had our first “exchange” in Loafe. I don’t like to admit this now, but I initially thought that our first exchange would be our last. This was due primarily to my own self-doubt. Fortunately, this was not the case.

That exchange was the first of many. Ofir is 29, from a small town in the Golan Heights called Eliad, and she is here for the term on exchange from Tel Aviv University. We are separated in age by almost a decade, but this is a fact I often forget.

I believe — and I hope Ofir would say the same — that we get along very well. Our difference in nationality and age seems irrelevant, as we share our respective languages and cultures.

During the time that we’ve known each other, we have made it a goal to find the best coffee on campus. I’m not so picky, but Ofir has standards.

We have decided on JJ Bean.

I have since taught Ofir the difference between “apparently” and “actually,” the meaning of expressions like “feeling blue” and that when someone greets you with “how’s it going?” they actually mean “hi.”

I have somewhat mastered the Aleph-bet. I can say basic phrases that will help me navigate should I ever go to Israel. Basically, I know enough to be able to impress anyone who doesn’t speak Hebrew.

This meeting and the subsequent friendship were not due to any organization — it was just a series of fortunate events. But I think this needs to happen to everyone. In a day and age with so much communication, there is still so much divide between us.

To take the time to have a person-to-person conversation with someone and to share your speech and way you live with another person are extremely valuable because you won’t stick just to languages. Your conversation will go beyond that. You’ll tell each other about your families, your differences and your beliefs.

Ofir and I could have been any other combination of people from any other countries.

Ofir Weltsch

One reason I decided to study for a semester abroad was in order to practice and improve my English. I arrived in Vancouver towards the end of August, excited to study at UBC and explore Vancouver. I soon understood that I had to find a way to work on my English and the best method I could think of was to do so with help from a native English speaker who could correct my mistakes during our conversation. Language exchanges are somewhat popular in Tel-Aviv, but I had never tried it before.

Soon after I arrived in Vancouver, I was presented with the opportunity.

Eve and I first met in mid-September. Since then, we have had meetings twice every week. When we first met, she was just shy of her 19th birthday and I too wondered if we could connect with one another and have enjoyable conversations.

Very soon after meeting I found that she was very mature for her age, intelligent, hardworking and had an affinity for languages — “affinity” is a word she taught me early on. I can’t explain how fast she was able to learn the Hebrew Aleph-bet, the principles of the language, and became able to read and write.

I have found our meetings to be very valuable. During every meeting, I ask Eve questions about different English phrases and words, such as “get used to it” and “convenient.” We also practice pronunciation and — perhaps the most essential aspect of language — slang.

I now have a platform to ask questions and learn about the language in a way I hadn’t before, and this has greatly strengthened my confidence in speaking English.

Through our friendship I have had the opportunity to learn what it means to be a born and bred Vancouverite, about being Canadian (at least on the West coast) and being a neighbour to the US. These meetings with Eve and our lovely conversations have made my experience in Vancouver even more unique.

In December I will be going back to Israel. I know Eve has plans to come visit, maybe next summer. I will be waiting to meet Eve again where we can drink beer together, eat falafel and houmous and enjoy the sunny and warm weather in Tel Aviv.