Is your Hebrew and Foreign Language Personality Identical?

I have lived in Israel for about 15 years. Granted, my language aptitude is somewhat below average, and I certainly speak Hebrew at a level lower than the average immigrant who has been so many years in the country. However, one thing that I have noticed about myself is that I have a very different personality when interacting in Hebrew than when I am conversing in English. I am more tentative in Hebrew than in English, and because my Hebrew vocabulary is not large, I end up not always being able to give the impression that I have knowledge and ability to get the job done.

On the face of it, it is not strange to recognize that people have various personalities depending upon the situation. We all behave differently when acting in the different “roles” that make up our normal everyday life. For instance, a person has a variety of personas, depending upon whether they are serving as parent, employee, or friend. This is natural and automatic, and it may or may not be important to consciously recognize this fact.

On the other hand, if you are not fully confident in Hebrew (or even if you are), and the impression you make on others when speaking a language other than your mother tongue is not identical to the impact you make in your first language, then at a minimum you should be aware of this, and even try to alter the situation if necessary. Of course it is always difficult to gauge the impression you are making on others, and many times our initial assumptions are not necessarily correct. Sometimes it is worthwhile to ask colleagues or other acquaintances for their honest feedback.

Let’s examine a common example. How can a job candidate come across as confident and knowledgeable in a job interview conducted in Hebrew when they do not feel that they have the comfort level in the language to succeed? Clearly, raising your Hebrew level generally is always a good idea, and the more you can put yourself in situations in which you must communicate in Hebrew, the quicker your abilities will improve. Practicing job interviews with native level Hebrew speakers is also a good idea. You can anticipate some of the questions that will be thrown at you in an interview, and combining this with knowledge about interviews (for instance, see: will allow you to practice in Hebrew the answers you will supply and raise both your ability to respond to these questions as well as your confidence level. Of course, you can always try to cheat by asking the interviewer if it is acceptable to conduct the interview in English (or some other language), but there are risks with this approach, including the negative impression you might make by avoiding Hebrew combined with the possibility that the interviewer will not be capable of making the switch.

The implications are equally important when you pass the interview stage and are working. In my first main job in Israel, working in technical support at a hi-tech company, I was always afraid that my co-workers thought I was an idiot. Between the combination of learning a new technology and having poor Hebrew language skills that minimized my ability to understand and express myself, I generated many strange looks from the company’s engineers. Thank goodness I passed that stage successfully, but the memory of that experience has not totally disappeared. Working hard to learn the material and doing my best to improve my language skills (and relying on the fact that most people in hi-tech companies have a good level of Hebrew :>) were the basis of my coping strategy, and this allowed me to ultimately become a strong contributor to the company; however it certainly required awareness and effort on my part.

Everyone, including me, advises immigrants that concentrating on improving their Hebrew language skills is one of the most important things they can do increase their attractiveness in the Israeli employment market. As you go through the stages of improvement, being aware of the perceptions that others have of you when you express yourself in Hebrew can be used to even further improve your successes in the Israeli workplace.

Contributed by Ron Machol - 27th Oct 2010

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