Over the last seven decades, I have managed to learn a number of languages- none of them perfect. Growing in Istanbul, Turkey, we already started with a few: at home we spoke Ladino, which is a Jewish-Spanish dialect spoken by Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Over the years, Ladino welcomed words from other languages, such as Hebrew, Italian, Greek, or Turkish. It is now written in Latin characters, but in the past it was written in Soletreo, a Rashi-type script. My father knew how to read Soletreo. Most of my generation cannot. Though our home language was Ladino, we spoke Turkish in the schools and in the streets.
For my first grade my parents sent me to the local Greek elementary school (in the Asian side of Istanbul) where most classes were taught in Greek. For the second grade I went to the community Turkish school, and from the third grade on, I attended the Jewish High School in the European section of Istanbul. (The school covered all grades from one to twelve).
The school curriculum included a number of languages: we began with Hebrew in the 2nd grade (?), French in the 3rd, and English was added to the 9th. While attending Law School in Istanbul, I took private lessons in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Italian. In Paris, France, where I spent a semester at the Institut International d'Etudes Hebraiques (first half of 1961), my French improved considerably to the point that I could take my exams in French.
When I enrolled in the rabbinic program of the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati (Sept. 1961), English became my primary language. From then on, I wrote to my parents and my brother in Istanbul only in English. At the seminary, in addition to studying Hebrew intensively, I also learned Aramaic, the language of some of the biblical texts and the Talmud.
Following ordination in 1966 I left Cincinnati for Buenos Aires, Argentina to become a congregational rabbi, and there I had to learn modern Spanish, really Argentinean, which was an easy jump from Ladino. I also took private lessons in German in order to understand what the Orthodox Rabbis were speaking in Yiddish behind my back. They did not approve of Reform Judaism, and were trying to impede my work there. (I didn’t want to study Yiddish, but I understood it).
In 1969, I came back to the States, and enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of Bible and ancient Near Eastern Literature. As part of my studies I had to take all the Akkadian dialects (Mari, Alalakh, Nuzi etc), but also Ugaritic, Arabic, and Sumerian. I never learned Egyptian.
There are many advantages to studying different idioms: You acquire a large vocabulary. You become aware that certain ideas or concepts can be fully expressed only by a particular language (e.g., “Derekh Eretz,” “Joie de Vivre”, Sitz im Leben,” “Spreadsheet”). You also develop a love for the culture of that language. Furthermore, it is much easier to learn a new language when you have studied a few others of the same family. I never studied Portuguese or Catalan, but, with my Spanish, I can understand most of it.
In spite of this wide exposure to so many languages, at times, I wish I could master just one well.
Sept. 8, 2009