Learning a new language may be one of the most challenging tasks in the world. It requires patience, discipline, as well as the desire to learn. It also necessitates the confidence to make mistakes in front of strangers and, even worse, in front of friends.
As someone who usually strives for perfection, it has been particularly difficult to learn my new language of choice: Hebrew.
I came to Israel two summers ago only knowing how to read and write in Hebrew, and I was impressed with how much I was able to learn during my brief three month period stay. But, when I returned to Israel again six months ago, I was no longer impressed with my level of proficiency in Hebrew or my ability to pick up on a few words here or there amidst a conversation. I also knew my transition to life in Israel would be that much more difficult if I didn’t continue progressing in Hebrew.
Perhaps picking up on my desire to learn more, Israeli’s began to give me unsolicited advice about the best ways to learn a language. An older woman said when she emigrated from Morocco to Israel all it took was two weeks on a kibbutz and dedication. My internship mentor from the previous summer told me about a young man who came to Israel without any knowledge of Hebrew, and after two months of refusing to use English (even when it was slightly painful for all the Israeli’s around him), he was speaking fluently. It felt like the times my dad sent me newspaper clips of a 15-year-old genius who had discovered a new treatment to cure a rare disease. But, learning Hebrew in a matter of weeks or months was not written in the stars for me. And I’m okay with that.
Instead of trying to learn Hebrew on my own, I enrolled in a month-long intensive Hebrew-language ulpan through the University of Haifa International School. During the oral portion of my placement test prior to the start of the course, I insisted I was a beginner and didn’t know Hebrew. The director of the program looked at me, asserted that I was “not a beginner anymore”, and placed me in the third level of Hebrew out of ten levels. Okay. I was not a true beginner. But I was unfamiliar with Hebrew grammar and most of my vocabulary consisted of slang. I also still relied heavily on Google Translate and the fact that the majority of Israelis know English.
During my ulpan I improved significantly and finally felt that I had a good handle on the language. But after the course ended I didn’t have a specific plan for continuing to improve or for holding onto what I had already learned.
Happily, I came across a program called “Not An Ulpan-Haifa” on Facebook. The name was catchy and the concept promising. Their motto is, “We don’t learn Hebrew, we learn in Hebew”. Pretty cool.
For anyone who has never been through an ulpan, they are not to be feared. But having an affordable alternative to the rigorous style of ulpan was refreshing. “Not An Ulpan” is a program that offers young adults the opportunity to learn Hebrew while focusing on important and relevant topics like politics, geography, nutrition, and culture. Rather than learning some of everything, “Not An Ulpan” encourages students to delve into specific subject matters with a critical eye. In my class, for example, I had the challenging task of debating about the benefits of eating meat versus going veggie. The relaxed, conversational style of the sessions gave me the confidence to use my Hebrew words and to come up with more to say in Hebrew than I thought I was capable of.
“Not An Ulpan-Haifa”, which began last semester, includes participants ranging from olim chadashim to travelers to students. The classes are held quite far away from where I live, but I made the distance work. I left each session feeling excited about how the evening went and the progress I had made.
After a successful first go at “Not An Ulpan-Haifa”, the fun is continuing in mid-January with Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced levels. For more information, check out their Facebook page or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are not in the Haifa area, there is also a “Not An Ulpan” offered each semester in Tel Aviv.