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How learning Hebrew (or any language) is like running a marathon

Throughout my Hebrew class, my teacher would say “יאללה, בוא נמשיך עם המרתון!” “Yalla, let’s continue the marathon!” when continuing on to a new topic. After completing an intensive language course, I can definitively say that learning a language is exactly like running a marathon:

  1. Learning a language is both physically and emotionally exhausting Running a marathon is both a physical and mental activity. You need to train not only your body, but also your mind. 26.2mi/42.2km is a LONG distance to run, and your brain won’t always be in a happy place. You need to know how to deal with this, so that if/when you hit the wall, you can persevere. Learning Hebrew has been eerily similar. Participating in class is challenging enough, but to take part in a “real world conversation,” where you must follow the conversation and its nuances can be challenging–and that’s when everyone is speaking slowly, clearly, and not talking over each other! Being mentally “on” and hyper focused for long periods of time is draining. There are days when I have a perma-headache, and nothing particularly exciting happened.

  2. The most important part is to show up There are workouts I was not particularly enthusiastic about, and yet, every time I showed up…they magically happened. Was each run the best run possible? No, but unless I injure myself, a shitty run is far better than no run. The same goes for attending ulpan. Even on days when I wasn’t motivated, I’d drag myself to class…and still learn at least something. Just as the most difficult part of every workout for me is the battle to put on my running gear and get out the door, so it was for ulpan. I now understand why high school classes gave points for attendance. Some days, all we can do is manage to show up…and some days, that’s all we need in order to succeed.

  3. Your cheer squad and teammates are crucial to your success Can you train for and run a marathon by yourself? Of course, but it will suck. Can you learn a new language by yourself? Not possible. Language is a form of communication, so if you have nobody with whom to practice…how can you learn? Duolingo can only take you so far.

  4. Look at the big picture/longitudinal progress, don’t get caught up in individual workouts It’s impossible to judge progress from workout to workout, and the same goes for learning Hebrew. While I’ve been in the middle of Hebrew classes, I don’t notice my progress. It’s only later, when I’m speaking with someone, that I’ll hear words/phrases that I didn’t know a few weeks ago and “magically” now understand. As frustrating as it is to not see immediate progress, these little victories make all of the struggle (mostly) worth it.

  5. If you take time off, you lose fitness While you can bask in the glow of a PR, once you achieve a running goal, there’s always another achievement on the horizon. If you stop training, you lose the speed and fitness. The same goes for learning a language…and unfortunately, since I didn’t grow up speaking Hebrew, I’m making up for a lot of lost time, and I constantly need to exercise my Hebrew muscles.

  6. The most important part (aside from putting in the work) is wanting it badly enough I’ve had many people tell me that they could never run a marathon. My answer is always the same: You could run a marathon, you just don’t want to. AND THAT’S OKAY! Seriously, I would never judge somebody for not wanting to work out intensely 4-5 days a week for 16-20 months, to give up sleep, free time, and (possibly) sanity. Now THAT would be insane. If someone wants it badly enough, they can probably complete a marathon. Similarly, I prioritize showing up to ulpan every morning (including working out an arrangement with my job, which I recognize is not possible for many people), speaking Hebrew at work, and in my free time with friends or my boyfriend.

  7. Sometimes, you just have to be lucky The day of the marathon, it could be raining sideways, like the 2018 Boston Marathon. You have to run the race in the conditions given. Maybe the weather will be perfect, maybe there will be a tsumani. (Which is why runners love to freak out the week of a race, frantically checking the weather every few minutes.)With ulpan, sometimes the conditions just aren’t right. Maybe the class isn’t the right fit, or you aren’t a fan of the teacher, or the only ulpan offering a class at your level requires a 3-bus commute. As frustrating as it can be, we can’t control every element of the process. Knowing this, I feel extremely lucky that I found an ulpan at my level, with a reasonable commute, great classmates, and a dedicated teacher.

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