If you really want to get the most out of your time in Israel/Palestine, it is essential you learn Arabic or Hebrew. Ideally, you should learn both.
Learning another language is the best thing you can do for yourself. It was and still is for me. I learned Arabic in 8-weeks from knowing literally nothing because I participated in the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish Language Immersion Institute (ATPLII) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. APTLII was an über intensive program that covered two semesters worth of material in one summer. And that’s just counting what we learned in the classroom! Because it was a residential language learning program, my teachers, classmates, and I also lived amongst each other. We did everything from eating breakfast to playing football, visiting museums and traveling the US together. Furthermore, we signed a pledge committing ourselves to only use Arabic. As a result, nearly every second of my summer was spent in Arabic. Hands down this was the most special, challenging, and rewarding academic experience of mine thus far. It was also the smartest choice I made to prepare for coming here. I learned more about the language and the culture than I ever expected I would, الحمدالله. With purpose and passion, anything is possible – learning Arabic in 8-weeks included.
My Arabic has opened up so many doors for me here already. For example, while traveling in Bethlehem, I met a Palestinian man who opened the door of his home and invited me to stay with him and his family for three days. In Ramallah, a total stranger paid for my meal after hearing me speak with the waiter in Arabic. That same night, I went with my friends to play ping-pong and FIFA at a secret local spot. These are just a few of the many extraordinary things I’ve experienced because of my Arabic.
Without a doubt, knowing Arabic and Hebrew makes everyday life easier because almost everything is in at least one of these two languages. Need a bathroom? No problem; if you can ask for it. Want to substitute regular milk for soy milk in the cappuccino you just ordered? That shouldn’t be an issue, either; if you know how to say it. How about bartering down the tourist price for that item you really want? Odds are you can get it for cheaper, much cheaper; if you know what you’re talking about. I’ve found people are more likely to be accommodating if you speak the same language. If you don’t (and even if you do!), beware you might receive dead stares, cold shoulders, or silence. Both Palestinians and Israelis are proud to speak in their native tongue and, most times, are even more excited to do so when they find out a foreigner (like me) does as well. This is to say knowing Arabic and Hebrew makes life more enjoyable. It feels good to connect with someone you might not have been able to connect with otherwise. And this fact knows no borders. For instance, at Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, I met a visiting student from Japan. They could not speak very much English and I don’t yet know any Japanese but luckily we both knew Arabic so we spent the night connected in beautiful conversation. It was truly amazing.
I implore you to learn Arabic and/or Hebrew. Start by mastering the alphabet. I recommend the children’s videos on YouTube. They are cute and helpful. I also like the app “Drops”. Better yet, enroll in a language immersion program, such as APTLII or Ulpan.
Whatever you decide to do, remember to take it step by step and have fun with it!