November 18, 2011 | Hebrew

Coffee Shop as Hebrew Language Lab

Aroma is turning out to be an unbelievable language-learning resource.

I think a couple of Aroma’s employees think I am kind of a loser, because I have been spending an inordinate amount of time there.

Fully Equipped at Aroma: Coffee, Alphabet Book, and Unsuspecting Israeli Tutors

Fully Equipped at Aroma: Coffee, Alphabet Book, and Unsuspecting Israeli Tutors

But it is the most amazing language lab—probably the best local free resource I’ve found for any language I’ve studied so far during this project. So I was there twice today.

The first time, I did two Pimsleur lessons, slouched down as usual in my chair and covering my mouth so I didn’t look like a crazy lady talking to herself. I am learning things like “Where is your wife?” and “My husband is not here.” Also the rather hostile-sounding “My husband can drink water.” In combination these seem like recipes for scandal. Those Pimsleur people are quite naughty.

When I got brain lock after two 30-minute Pimsleur lessons, I switched to one of my alphabet books, working on the letters tav, mem, and lamed. And when I got confused about why there were two different tav’s, one with a dot and one without, all I had to do was look up and ask the customer sitting across from me, “Do you speak Hebrew?”

I felt sure the answer would be yes, and it was. He said he didn’t know the historical reason for the two letters; in fact, he confessed, “I was traumatized by my language-learning experience.”

I informed him that he seemed to have come out of it okay.

Despite this customer’s past trauma, he was able to confirm that tav’s both dotless and dotted were pronounced as t, and I continued merrily on my language-learning way. (I am realizing as I write this, though, that I am still confused about the twin ways of rendering the t sound, as well as the vowel sound a. It seems to me that there could be many written combinations that would produce the same outcome, though maybe there are constraints I don’t yet know about that would limit the number of possibilities.)

These Don't Really ALL Say Tata, Do They?

These Don’t Really ALL Say Tata, Do They?

The cool thing is, if he hadn’t been able to help me, I could have gone to the people at the next table, who were engaged in a lively conversation in Hebrew, or bugged the man off to the side, once he stopped talking loudly into his phone in Hebrew.

While I was copying over letters, the aforementioned customer told me I should order a shakshuka—that that would help me. I thought he was referring to some kind of book, so I started to write the name down, but then he told me it was a dish—“the most Israeli thing Aroma serves,” he said.

He was joking, of course, but people are always trying to feed me into a state of language competence, as if there were verb conjugations among the ingredients! 

Later in the afternoon I went back to Aroma seeking recaffeination. I did more Pimsleur, noticing as I was responding to the lesson’s cues (to say things like “Is your wife with you?”) that the customer sitting across from me was reading a French publication with multiple references in it to Jews. I figured he, too, probably spoke Hebrew, and I was correct.

Ceci ne pas un livre

Ceci ne pas un livre

He turned out to be a Belgian who had lived many years in Israel, and he explained to me the differences between the two Hebrew words ben and bar (which I had been taught by different sources both meant “son”) and another pair confusing me, adon and mar (both meaning “Mr.”). We spoke in French for a while; my Hebrew skills are not exactly in a state that supports sophisticated repartee. 

How awesome is it that there was help like this within two feet of my chair? At Aroma, I don’t have to spend one second frustrated if I don’t want. There’s always someone around to answer questions. Not just employees, but also customers, which is ideal, because I can’t always feel too great about bugging people who are behind a counter trying to make a living—in a very expensive city, by the way—for what are essentially free tutoring services.

You know, over the course of this project I have often been told, “You should just go to [insert country where whatever language I’m studying is spoken].” I’m not sure what these people think I am made of (diamond-encrusted gold bricks?), but I am not in a position where just going and living somewhere else, especially 15 somewhere elses over the course of three years, is a practical solution to my language-learning needs.

Anyway, a major point of this undertaking is that in New York City, it is possible to get way, way more than coffee in your local coffee shop! 

Comments (11)

Luba • Posted on Sat, November 19, 2011 - 3:39 pm EST

The last row of combinations is not necessarily pronounced like tata, since there are no nekudot (vowel signs) under the letters you can’t be sure. It might as well be tet, or teta, or tat, or even tate. O and u vowels are also possible, but less likely, since in modern spelling they’re usually marked by the letter vav. And in the last combination of the last row the second letter is het, not tav

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, November 19, 2011 - 3:52 pm EST

Thank you so much, Luba. And oops on that het (which is a letter I haven’t learned yet). I forgot a line!

Kris L. • Posted on Sat, August 24, 2013 - 4:47 pm EST

I just wanted to comment on how much I love your blog!  It makes me miss NYC so much!  While there are other places where you can hear more than English spoken, NYC is just so INTERNATIONAL!!!

Thanks again!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, August 24, 2013 - 5:17 pm EST

Thank you, Kris! I’m sorry I am making you miss it, but I appreciate your note. And share your sentiments about this city, for sure!

Irena Pasvinter • Posted on Sat, June 07, 2014 - 6:46 am EST

I enjoyed this story. A true language learning determination! I had no idea there was Aroma in NYC.:)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, July 08, 2014 - 11:45 pm EST

Irena, an older man whose hearing is maybe not so great has been having Hebrew lessons there. He reads his Hebrew texts aloud to his teacher, extremely loudly, and you can hear him from one floor to the next. When I see him there for a lesson, I try to remember, “It is LANGUAGE, and I LIKE language,” so that the noise will be a little bit less…intrusive.

Irena Pasvinter • Posted on Wed, July 09, 2014 - 12:05 am EST

Hehe! On the average Israelis tend to speak rather loudly, even without hearing problems. When an interesting topic is discussed in our office kitchen the noise be heard all over the office— a good reason to venture out for a cup of tea of coffee..:)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, July 09, 2014 - 12:10 am EST

So when you venture out to escape the noise, then you can go to a café like Aroma…and hear a loud something else! Perfect! :)

Irena Pasvinter • Posted on Wed, July 09, 2014 - 12:13 am EST

No, I didn’t make myself clear—I venture out of the room into the noisy kitchen to join the discussion.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, July 09, 2014 - 1:15 am EST

Ha ha ha! Ooops!!!

Meira • Posted on Tue, August 25, 2015 - 4:43 am EST

There are 7 different letters that sound the same in modern-day Hebrew (unless you’re talking with a Sfardi):
Alef (א) and Ayin (ע)
Chaf (כ) and Chet (ח)
Taf (ת), Tet (ט) and Saf (ת)

These letters used to be pronounced differently from each other, but over time the similar sounds blended into each other and people forgot the difference.
I have no idea what happened between Taf and Saf because those letters had a difference like the one between Bet and Vet.

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