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Language Junky

I am a multiple language learning addict, not to be confused with a multiple language speaker, which I’m really not. At least not yet. I keep wanting to add more languages to my Duolingo account, like: Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, etc. But I’ve tried to keep a lid on it and stick to the four I’m already working on (French, Hebrew, Spanish, and German), so that I can, maybe, get somewhere.

E pre groom

Ellie is skeptical

My anxiety about speaking out loud is a big part of my problem. I get too self-conscious, and worry about making mistakes. It’s also possible, maybe, that studying four languages at a time is a problem, but I can’t help it! I have no self-control!

When I heard that Pete Buttigieg, “Mayor Pete,” speaks seven languages, and then also did a short video in American Sign Language, I felt like a horrible underachiever. I have no interest in joining the military, or being a mayor, or running for President, but being a polyglot would fill me with joy! I could read Harry Potter in every language!!!!!


“No more Harry Potter!”

I’ve been excusing my endless hours on Duolingo as possibly for the benefit of my future career, because, you now, social workers should understand a lot of different people. That’s why I started to learn Spanish in the first place, because I had to communicate with a client who only spoke Spanish and hand gestures were not getting me very far. And, you never know, maybe I’ll come across someone who speaks French or German or Hebrew and get a chance to use my limited skills in those languages professionally as well, some day.

But, to be honest, I’m not really doing it for my job. If I were really taking it seriously as something to add to my resume, I would force myself to take in-person classes, and practice conversation, and even go to an immersion program. But that would be scary and full of pressure. And Duolingo is fun, and relaxing.

My synagogue is planning a trip to Israel next year, with a side trip to Berlin at the beginning, and an after trip to Jordan. Of course I can’t afford to go, and I’ll probably have a job by then and won’t have time to go, but it has captured my imagination.

I’ve heard a lot about the beauty of Petra, in Jordan, but that’s not really my focus. I need to go to Israel. I’ve never been there and it feels important to breathe the air and see the streets for myself. But, I want to go to Berlin. I’ve been studying German for a little while now. The original idea was to learn enough German to be able to learn Yiddish, but along the way the harsh sounds of German have been prickling my brain and trying to tell me secrets I can’t quite hear yet; about the Holocaust, definitely, but also about the German Jews who were so thoroughly German that they couldn’t imagine what was coming, couldn’t imagine being demonized and tortured and killed by their fellow countrymen. I recognize the long, slow, period of disbelief that we spend most of our lives marinating in, not quite seeing what’s really going on around us, because we just don’t want to believe that awful things can happen.


“I always believe awful things can happen.”

Israel is a harder trip for me, because it’s so loaded with mixed feelings: the heat; the daily potential for violence; the existential crisis; the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox and the Secular Jews; the chockablock spiritual places stuffed into one small country; the language, and the guilt I feel at still not being fluent after so many years of trying; the fear that I will feel alien even there, where I am supposed to feel, finally, at home.

I want to go with my congregation and hear what they are thinking, and feel known and visible. I want to see my best friend from high school in her natural habitat. She and her daughter have started learning Italian (not one of my languages) so I may have to add just that one more language to my Duolingo account.

I know I’m not going on this trip, and yet I think of it every day while I do my language practice, and I imagine being in Berlin and hearing German all around me, and being in Israel and trying to force myself to speak Hebrew. Both places seem full of memories for me and yet I’ve never been to either. But I couldn’t leave Mom and the girls behind for ten days, spending money we don’t have, and looking for some way to stop in Mexico or Spain to practice my Spanish, with a stopover in Paris to work on my French. It’s not going to happen, and yet, in my mind, it happens every day.


“That sounds exhausting.”


If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?


About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

90 responses »

  1. Have you ever tried Skype or some process to see your friend in Israel? Maybe you will find the one highly paid social work job in the world and then will be able to travel freely. However, even Ellie knows the likelihood of that!

  2. I bet you have learned more language than you think you have

  3. I think imagining yourself in those countries is huge incentive to keep practicing, Rachel. I can still say the Latin prayers we learned in grammar and high school. Obviously, that got me nowhere!

  4. I know what you are saying about being shy to talk. I have been learning Mandarin for many years and studied in Beijing for three months full time. I was very shy to speak like you incase I got the tones wrong or said the wrong thing. Now after living there for three years and back home to Australia, it doesn’t worry me at all – I just speak whenever I have the opportunity with a Chinese and have found I had nothing to be so scared of – the Chinese just love hearing a foreigner speaking their language. PS I hope you continue to imagine yourself overseas but do hope one day you can go where your heart takes you. All the best.

  5. I feel the same way about languages. (Duolingo Kindrana.) Would love to spend more time with them, but love the time I get. I hope you can make the trip in the coming years, if not this next one.

  6. I grew up only being able to speak Cantonese for the first few years and then I was exposed to Australian English speaking children and had to quickly learn Australian English. I can now no longer speak or understand Cantonese. I hope you continue to learn languages better and add more to you list.

  7. Angela@eatlivehappy

    I sure hope you will be able to make those travels one day. Sounds like you are well on your way!

  8. Duolingo works quite well with our dyslexic son. That’s such a cute dog.

  9. Duolingo is an excellent program. Good luck with your many languages. We travel a lot and everywhere we go people appreciate simple expressions like hello, thank you and how are you. You don’t have to be fluent, you just have to try.

  10. so I had to google duolingo and now I’m gonna get sucked in because that’s just the way I am. I took Latin in high school, my best friend’s mom taught French so I had no choice there, and I sorta feel like Spanish is forced upon me so I resist that mightily – do they offer a course in Dog, because I would love to know what Maverick is really saying when he gives me those barks and whines!

  11. I would love to be able to speak so many languages. Unlike you, I don’t do anything about it all, dreaming is as far as it gets. Good on you for having 4 Duolingo accounts.

  12. Oh, Rachel, I want to go to Berlin too! And I want to go back to Israel! I am just afraid my body won’t do either of them. My joints and muscles do bad things when I sit still for too long so the flights worry me and accessibility is a big deal in Israel, or at least it was. But I long to see the museums in Berlin!

    I admire that you can hold so many languages in your head. I used to be moderately fluent in Spanish; I can still understand it pretty well. However, Hebrew seems to have pushed it aside in my brain. Yesterday I had one of my awful mixed up conversations with a poor guy on my doorstep. I wanted to ask his boss a question (they were doing some yard work for me) and I said, “Where’s Ingrid?” He gave me the blank “I don’t know what you are saying” look, so I helpfully switched gears into what I was sure was going to be Spanish and was surprised when what came out of my mouth was “Efo Ingrid?” He looked surprised, too. Then I changed it to “Donde Ingrid?” and it turned out that she’d already left. We did a couple more rounds of “The Rabbi Who Can’t Talk Straight” before we both smiled and gave it up as a bad job. At least we were both smiling.

    • I mix languages all the time! I practice on the dogs and a sentence that starts in French inevitably ends in Hebrew. I worry about the physical stress of the trip too, because I’d get up in the morning with a full itinerary and by ten o’clock I’d be ready to collapse. But I still dream of going.

  13. Rachel, the fact that you want to embrace different languages is pretty awesome. Don’t be so quick to think you’ll butcher them by trying to use them… I mean, think of how many people butcher English, and it’s the only language they know!

    And remember, it doesn’t cost anymore to dream big than to dream little! Keep reaching for your dreams! Even if you never reach them, you’ll never regret not trying to! Go for it!

  14. I used to be able to speak French very well at one time, and hold my own in a conversation, as well as reading ‘heavy’ literature in that language. But after decades of not having to use the language, I am amazed how much has drifted away.
    I have been to Berlin, both East and West, (before the wall came down) and it is a very interesting city. But so many people understand English, you will be unlikely to need to speak German, unless you want to.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • I feel like I’m learning so much about the culture by learning the language, so it’s okay if they prefer to speak English with me. But I’d still love to try.

      • German is quite easy to pick up.
        Kuke= Cake
        Tanz=Dance, etc.
        Although Rathaus is ‘Town Hall’, which threw me. 🙂
        So much of it sounds similar

      • It’s such a relief when I hit a patch of vocabulary that’s the same as English, but then I hit the five syllable nonsense words and I start to lose my mind again.

  15. What a cutie dog!

  16. I’ve learned that immersion is the best way to learn to speak another language but kudos to you for educating yourself.

  17. Speaking 4 languages fluently — now that’s impressive. Even though I took Spanish for many years I can only speak one language fluently and that’s English. LOL

  18. There is another blogger here, Marilyn of Serendipity – Seeking Intelligent Life, who lived in Israel for a number of years. She might be valuable to know for you because her experiences might tip you one way or the other towards going. You perhaps ought to save up the money to go at least to Israel. Something about the roots for your people may be really valuable. And if you know Spanish, Italian (apparently) is far easier to learn because there are similarities. I speak a very little Spanish, know a few words in Japanese, French, Italian and German.

    I heard of the following experience and it’s always stuck with me. When I was employed I worked for a bi-lingual clinic (English and Spanish). We were highly encouraged to learn Spanish because so few of the clients spoke English. And I found out that wasn’t true. Many of them COULD speak English, but refused to simply because they were embarrassed about their accent. I understand (don’t know for a fact) that Spanish speakers are harsh to those who don’t speak Spanish as a first language and who attempt to learn. Most of the people I encountered who could speak English but wouldn’t didn’t have a ‘bad’ accent and they told me the same was true of me. Maybe we’re all too self conscious about what others think of us and presume judgment when none may be forthcoming. I BET you sound better than you think you do.

  19. Love this post. I have always wanted to speak other languages but have done nothing about it. This gives me hope that I can do it.

  20. I sure hope you do get to go….I have wanted to go for years, my parents loved their trip. You never know what’s possible!!! Either way, good job on learning the languages, even if it is slow going. I lived in a foreign culture for a while, and the immersion technique is incedibly faster, so if you are able to get in conversational classes that would be awesome. Good luck!!

  21. Sadly I am hopeless at languages, only having a good ear for music. I spoke French with a broad Dorset accent, so even if I’d wanted to, it was doubtful they’d let me sit my O level way back in the 70s. German was a definite no-no as well, but it’s surprising how much French I can remember…… not enough to engage in conversation, but I could start one off!
    I take my hat off to you Rachel for your studies. It’s a pity you wouldn’t be able to go on this trip.
    Ellie and Cricket are cuties as always.

  22. If you’re self conscious about making a mistake in another language, take up Martian. Nobody would ever know you made a boo-boo.

  23. We were in Israel in April. It was the trip of a lifetime. I wrote this blog:

    The Wailing Wall

    It’s been called the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall. For about 50 years I believed it was the remaining western wall of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was rebuilt by King Herod in 37 B.C., hundreds of years after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces. However when the Temple was destroyed in its entirety by the Romans in 70 AD, there was not a stone left standing of the building itself. That was the nature of their warfare, nothing left to chance.

    This year, in the first two months of April my spouse and I toured Israel. The guide noted that the Wailing Wall was a retaining wall. In other words with the quite, hilly city that is Jerusalem the original Temple building sat on a high hill. It then had a courtyard. At the western end of the courtyard securing the soil on that side of the high hill was what we now call, the Western Wall.

    One can call it what you will. One can describe its technicalities. But well beyond the technical nature of the Wall was the experience of this 100% Ashkenazi Jew praying at the Wall. To my right was a man dressed in black, orthodox garb whose hat had a modest brim. To my left was a man in a yarmulke dressed in shorts. It was a somewhat warm, breeze-less day in Jerusalem.

    I bent slightly and placed my forehead against the ancient wall in prayer. It was evocative. I felt an indescribable connection to my forebears dating back several millennia. Even more real was my sense of the presence of God in this Holy Place. I am so thankful we made this trip.

    H. Robert Rubin, MD, Amazon best selling memoirist and author of Look Backward Angel and How Did I Get Through This? available on Amazon.

  24. I was so impressed that you were learning languages and playing the ukulele. I was trying both and decided to concentrate on my Spanish. I’m a visual learner and have a hard time at languages so I know what you mean. But, I was practicing Spanish on Duolingo for about a year and gave up because I wasn’t getting any better. Then I was the only person on a medical aid call that spoke any Spanish and realized that, I might not be good, but I had learned enough to communicate with a family that spoke no English on a complex medical problem. So I started practicing again. I was teaching in Nepal with a Spanish professor who loved linguistics. Every morning we would go to the vegetable stand below the hotel to buy fruit for class and a quick lesson in Nepalese. Each morning, I was relearning the words from yesterday and he remembered it all and was learning new words. But he broke apart the words into sounds, associated everything with words he already knew, and noticed the ways he had to move his mouth to make the sounds. It was interesting to see how he learned. I still enjoy Duolingo but I think it is hard to learn a language without immersion. Please travel to Israel and Germany; you will never know what it is like until you go. I remember my 49th birthday when I kept thinking of all the places I wanted to go but never did. Depressing. But I’ve changed that and am so thankful for the experiences.

  25. 🙂 I love Duolingo, too. I was practical in school and took Spanish even though I really wanted to learn French. Now, I’m doing what I should have done in the first place. You never know what travel opportunities might surprise you. Hoping for something exciting for you.

  26. I love languages too. I took spanish in college and while I barely passed the written portion of the final I excelled in the conversation part. I do watch 2 youtubers to try and improve: butterfly spanish and why not spanish.
    I listen to oodles of songs in other languages and I guess what its about and sing along more or less. It took quite a few years of hearing eastern european and asian languages before I could “sense them”. one day I just noticed the beauty and flow, I hear it in Slavic languages as well as, Mandarin, Thai, and Japanese.
    Ikh prubirn aun zeyn brini.

  27. Your goal of learning several languages is commendable.

  28. I have a funny relationship with languages. My Japanese is pretty good but I owe that to having a Japanese wife where failure to communicate would have had harsh and probably costly consequences. I took French and Spanish in school and whilst I can read with fair proficiency, I van’t speak worth a darn. My habit is to do an intense self-immersion refresher course a few weeks before we travel internationally. That gives me just enough skill to find a good hotel, food, basic directions, counting, beer and a bathroom and that, after all, covers 90% of my needs. But I have never had the courage to try that approach with Hebrew even before my trips to Israel. That’s one bridge too far for me.

    • I started to learn Hebrew as a four year old, so it feels natural to me, but I can imagine how strange it looks on the page compared to English. I’d have the same trouble with Japanese, but it would be fun trouble!

  29. I had the *same problem* with language classes at school–too shy and self-conscious. I did best with Latin because it was mostly writing…LOL.

  30. I know so many people loving Duolingo! And I’m applauding you . . .

  31. I’ve been to Berlin once, but never really stayed there. On one hand, I really love Germany, its culture, its tiny, little towns looking like illustrations from some book.
    On the other, it’s still difficult to be there without thinking about the terrible events of the past century.
    I used to learn German when I was about 10, that’s why I can understand Yiddish a little when they speak it, but I can’t read it.
    I speak three languages (Russian, English, French), but sometimes it bothers me that I don’t speak Hebrew. I know there’s nothing to be ashamed of, but still.
    I wish you to achieve everything you want to! Dreams do come true 🙂

    P. S. It’s not up to me to give you advice, but, in my opinion, it’s always better to focus on one language.

  32. I am always afraid to try to say words in another language . . . I am not even talking about speaking the language. I bet if I were to attempt another language I would not only slaughter the pronunciation but the grammar! Eek! I am just talking about a word here or there – and I still won’t do it. My husband makes me envious . . . he doesn’t hesitate to say a word or to tackle whole sentences. Years ago when we went on a Mediterranean cruise he not only went for it when trying to speak the language of the countries we visited, but he was always pestering the crew to teach him words and sayings in their languages!!! And he would speak them no matter what, bad pronunciation/grammar/whatever, and the people (those in ports and on the ship) would smile a warm smile at his efforts. The crew would coach him. It was cool. I am not so brave.

    Regarding your trip, it is fun to dream. That is a good portion of the fun of traveling – IMO.

  33. I too am an avid language learner – or at least a language starter… I have phases where I love Portuguese; other phases where I love Italian; others Turkish. If only I stayed focused enough to actually become fluent in one, or at least as competent as I am in French (which I’ve become good at thanks to fixed and regular lessons). At the moment though, my love for languages keeps me dotting around from one ‘Duolingo tree’ to another! But despite lacking fluency, there is something I love about being this way. It has made me know a little about a lot, and that’s not such a bad thing!

  34. I’ve also started teaching myself Spanish in order to communicate better with some of my patients. I hope to sometime soon find a class for Spanish for healthcare, as duolingo doesn’t have enough of the specific subjects I need to talk about with patients. I have been tempted to start teaching myself even more languages (Japanese, Irish, maybe perfect my French more…) but I’m scared of confusing myself by attempting too many different things at once! Then again, learning French helped me to understand English better in some ways – maybe learning another language will help me in a similar way. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot from speaking (or dabbling in) multiple languages!

  35. I am a fellow language lover, so I understand! My French is pretty good, and I recently completed a class in Spanish. I, too, began learning Hebrew as a child, but find that there is a vast difference between being able to pray the Shaharit and being able to hold up one’s end of a conversation. Sure, I can say “ken,” “lo,” “shalom,” “yadayim, “raglayim,” “todah rabah” and “lo m’daber ivrit.” But you can only get so far with “barukh atah” and “melekh l’olam!” I shall have to check out Duolingo.

  36. I’m addicted to Duolingo too! Wish you the best

  37. I hope you get to Israel and Berlin. I’ve been to both, and they are marvellous places to visit. Jerusalem is incredible. Re the languages – i know what you mean about anxiety re speaking the language out loud. I think that’s why so many Brits (for example) are mono-linguists. But when i listen to European speaking English, I’m often struck by how ‘rubbish’ (and that’s relative seeing as I only speak English) their English is and yet they are not afraid to do it, and you can often work it out anyway. What I’m trying to say is that it is better to try than not, I guess? Awesome job with the Duolingo. I only managed the Spanish one and didn’t keep it up.

  38. languages that have similar bases, like French and Spanish, are going to be easier to learn together. Ones with unfamiliar alphabet, like Japanese or Chinese, are going to take more effort to learn because you’ll need to commit more to memory: word meaning, grammer rules, AND special characters/alphabet.

    -Hugh F.

  39. Israel should be extraordinary. Such contrasts and such history – so much to look forward to . I envy you!

  40. You totally got me at – I could read Harry Potter is any language.

  41. The fact that you want to learn that many languages is inspiring in itself. I bet you’re better than you think! Maybe there is other people like yourself that you could meet up with to have conversations and practice or natural speakers of the language in your area that might enjoy a visit and coffee in exchange for an opportunity to practice conversational skills. What a wonderful goal to pursue – wishing you all the best!


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