Making the Case for Hebrew
By Lee Buckman
I’m a lover of Hebrew. I like languages in general, but especially Hebrew. Throughout my life, Hebrew was and is one of the primary ways that I identify as a Zionist. In fact, since my four sons were born (our oldest was born in 1989), I have spoken only Hebrew to them. My Hebrew still has an American accent. I make mistakes in grammar and syntax. I’m not proficient in street Hebrew and often use antiquated words that make Israelis cringe or laugh. Nevertheless, our sons have learned Hebrew (thanks also to their day school education).
My Eliezer ben Yehudah craziness about Hebrew wasn’t always received well by my kids. At times they responded in English, but they also knew that if they wanted something they needed to make the request in Hebrew. Now, our two sons who served in the IDF have authentic Israeli accents. The one who currently lives in Israel has near-native abilities and gently and respectfully corrects my Hebrew. The other two speak to me predominantly in Hebrew but mix in English and do well around Israelis.
As committed as I am to the Hebrew language, I must admit that we fight an uphill battle in the Diaspora to make the case for Hebrew. In the world today, more Jews speak English than Hebrew; English may now be the lingua franca of our people. To advance in academia in Israel, one must publish in English. Almost every classical text that was originally published in Hebrew is now available in English translation thus making the incentive to read texts “in the original” not so pressing.
Given this new reality, I wasn’t surprised to read the findings of a recent study conducted by Professors Jack Wertheimer and Alex Pomson about Hebrew language instruction in Jewish day schools. It is available online at: https://www.rosovconsulting.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Hebrew-for-What-AVI-CHAI-Foundation.pdf.
One of the most intriguing and disturbing findings is that older day school students typically perceive their Hebrew language skills to be poorer than younger students’ perceptions of their abilities. Older students also enjoy learning Hebrew less than do their younger peers.
Alex Pomson explains the results this way:
In the early phases of learning a language, the gains come quickly, and the motivation to learn comes from a sense of making progress. The satisfactions are intrinsic to the task. We thrill at being able to say things in a foreign tongue. At some point – sooner or later – we hit a wall. We enter what the Proficiency Method people call a “silent phase” where language learning advances less dramatically, and the intrinsic pleasures are not enough to sustain our language growth. We start to say less even if we understand more. And the question is what might it take for us to scale that wall or break through the silence.
It’s in that “silent phase,” when Hebrew takes a plunge, that students begin asking themselves why they are breaking their teeth on Hebrew. Some don’t hit a wall and progress is its own motivation. However, the vast majority of students need reason to “keep calm and carry on.”
Another study, conducted by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education, offered some encouragement. The latter research found that kids who have relatives in Israel and who visit those relatives in Israel are more likely to gain proficiency in Hebrew and feel positive about their abilities. These findings have implications for students who don’t have relatives in Israel.
Here’s what Alex Pomson writes:
Educators need to provide students with relevant goals and reasons for persevering with this task. If teachers would truly only respond when students speak in Hebrew, that would provide reason to persist. If students know that they need Hebrew to communicate with peers in Israel – not just on a two-week trip but on an ongoing basis -that would be another reason. And if teachers would be ready to explore with students what they see as compelling reasons to study Hebrew, that would make a difference too.
I don’t put the responsibility on teachers alone. All of us need to make the case to our children why it’s worth learning Hebrew. It’s starts by asking ourselves the question: Why do we think it’s important to learn Hebrew?