As I was driving through Israel listening to the radio last week, I heard the song, “Yotze La’Or”.   It’s a pretty famous song, written and beautifully sung by Ehud Banai. It is also the song we chose for the Grade 8 graduation at the Jewish Day School where I work. It was suggested to me by our Israeli shinshinit – an 18 year old girl doing a year of service abroad prior to her army service to engage the larger Jewish community in Israeli history, culture and language.  She said it was very meaningful to Israelis.

When I heard it on the radio, I recognized the tune but I still couldn’t understand the words. It reminded me that most of our Grade 8 students also couldn’t understand the words when they were learning the song for graduation. It is a beautiful, inspirational song, but there were so many phrases and words in it that students don’t learn in Jewish day school.

I have personally been learning Hebrew since 1973. It’s 2017. That’s a long time. Yet, in Israel, I’m quite lost. The slang, the acronyms, the speed of speech and the vocabulary just leave me out of conversations I want to be part of. And, the truth is, the same is often true for many kids who learn Hebrew in the diaspora.

I started learning Hebrew when my parents and grandparents spoke Yiddush to each other, as Yiddish and Hebrew are connected languages. The Hagoydah was the story we read at Passover. Shveeas was the Jewish holiday at the end of May. My parents made broochus on my sister and I at Shabbat dinner. Oh – and Ivris was the Hebrew language. We read it in the Siddur at shul.

At the Community Hebrew School I attended on Sundays, we learned the names of the Hebrew letters and the sounds they made. We even learned to recite the alphabet in Hebrew to a cute tune that I still remember. We learned to copy words and write grammatically correct sentences.  We learned to read the Siddur and sound out the words with nikudot. I was pretty good at this and, by the end of my Hebrew education there, I was able to read the (very basic and familiar) brachot in the siddur. I never knew what page we were on during services, but I could follow the service if I, by sheer luck, found the page.

When I took my entrance exam for Ulpan in 1986, the year I went to Hebrew University for my year abroad, I scored zero. I remembered some of the letter names, but apparently, that did not equate to Hebrew proficiency.

I began Ulpan with a passionate desire to learn and speak Hebrew, as many students do. I felt good when I could say things like “Camuh zeh oleh?” if I wanted to buy something, “Ayfoh ha sherutim?” when I needed to use the washroom or “Rock Regah” (that’s how I pronounced it) when I needed someone to wait. We learned the letters, we read and wrote print and we even pronounced many words and listened to simple conversations in Hebrew.   During that Ulpan, I got good marks and felt I was doing well in my progress towards integrating into Israeli society. All my courses were in English and all the students in the dorms were from abroad, so I didn’t really have the opportunity to practice much outside the classroom or trips into the city. I finished the year passing Level gimmel in the Ulpan. When I returned to Israel in 2004, I still remembered the main phrases and, using proper grammar, I could get my message across.  I could say sentences like “Ani tzricha lelecht l’chanut” but when a Hebrew speaker answered, I was done. Forget real conversations. This year, when I was in Israel, my frustrations hit an all-time high. As with all language learners, I understand more than I can speak, but I easily lose the thread of any conversations when the Israelis speak quickly, with heavy accents, if there is any background noise or if they joke around in Hebrew. No nuances for me.

So, since most Israelis speak English anyways and Jews in the Diaspora don’t need Hebrew for their daily lives, why does it matter?

Well, it matters a lot.

According to Guy Deutscher, in the prologue to his book, “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in other Languages”, he shares that “…each language reflects the qualities of the nation that speaks it.” Deutscher also argues that, “…cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways, and that a growing body of reliable scientific research provides solid evidence that our mother tongue can affect how we think and how we perceive the world.”

So, if Jews outside of Israel struggle to learn and understand Israeli Hebrew even when they make an effort to do so, how can they fully engage with the people, the land and culture of Israel?  We must figure out and apply the pedagogies that make true proficiency in the language a priority for Jews around the world who want to learn Hebrew.

Can educators in the Diaspora do something about this?  Many are making important changes to instructional approaches, but we need to do better. It is important to constantly break down the results, and backtrack to figure out how to ensure that Hebrew is within reach for those that are destined to learn Hebrew as a foreign language.

I’ve had the opportunity to watch the results of some pedagogical approaches that work very well, because they apply what we know for sure about language learning:

Start with oral language: Learning a language begins with being immersed in oral language. Just as a baby begins language by processing loads of oral language, then starts expressing themselves (babbling) first. A child then integrates word learning, which becomes functional and conversational approximations and, over years, becomes conventional. That same trajectory has to be available to all language learners as they progress through the stages.

What we are missing outside of Israel is the immersion component, the opportunity to go through the approximation stage and the time to move through the continuum.   How can we tackle this?  We need to speak Hebrew to our students, expect our students to speak Hebrew at all times during school, and stop being so easy on the students who are embarrassed to speak Hebrew. Maybe if our reaction to their approximations was closer to how we encourage babies and toddlers to speak (by praising them, by modelling the correct pronunciation, by moving the conversation forward) rather than quickly reverting to English, we wouldl be able to create a more impactful immersion environment.

Give it time but don’t give up: We know that it takes up to 3 years of immersion in a language to have basic conversational skills and 5-7 years to acquire the complex vocabulary necessary to, let’s say, speak about topics proficiently in a new language. We have to be aware of this as we immerse our students in Hebrew. Let’s not be afraid to speak at an increasingly quick pace, using the language structures the students have mastered and adding on in a natural way.

Stop teaching reading and writing before oral language: There is no evidence that learning to read and write a language before one learns to speak it is supportive of language learning. We have to change the order of how we teach Hebrew in schools. We have to start earlier to use the real language, the real Hebrew of the country where it is lives.  Once students have some oral language, we could  put up signage around the environment without nikudot – it doesn’t help to read words with nikudot in Israel. Gradually, give students that important, automatic sight vocabulary we need when learning to read in any language. Teach the culture through music and current Israeli TV, and make sure to layer some of the lingo of the important aspects of the country such as the army, social situations, or how to order food in an Israeli restaurant.

Use the first language as a bridge, but realize its limitations: A solid first language is a must when learning new languages, and learning new languages is easier when the home language is strong and in practice. Therefore, we don’t (at all) want to devalue the first language, but use it as a bridge to Hebrew. Point out the similarities, but be okay when students lapse into their first language during a conversation for a moment.

Speak and teach real Israeli Hebrew along with conventional Hebrew: It is important for students to speak real Israeli Hebrew in school. In addition to teaching the structures necessary to understand a language, add in the slang. Instead of saying, “That’s great!” say, “Chaval ul ha z’man” (which literally translates to “shame on the time”). It’s an important phrase in Hebrew. It can’t be translated and students need if for conversations. To feel comfortable with the language in Israel, one must know the slang – and there is a lot of slang in Hebrew that gives us an understanding of the people and their lives.

It’s time for educators to dispense with what doesn’t work and give our students a beautiful opportunity. If Jews outside of Israel continue to struggle to learn and understand the Hebrew language, how can they fully engage with the land and culture of Israel? Instead of Israel being “their home”, it is an interesting country that they watch from the outside. The good news is, many knowledgeable educators are leading us in the right direction. Let’s do everything we can to make it possible for the Hebrew language to be the lens through which Jews see their beautiful country.

By the way – K’shlap – the acronym for Kasher L’Pesach. Obviously!