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Top 10 things they don’t tell you in ulpan

As an 'Anglo' in Israel, you can live in a perfect little English-speaking bubble for a lifetime, which is fine -- unless you’re up for the adventure of really learning Hebrew

Think you don’t have “talent” for language? That’s like sitting on the couch eating chips every day, and then complaining that you can’t run a marathon because you don’t have as much “talent” as the guy who trains every morning.

Language, like life, is mostly about showing up. As an English speaker in Israel, you don’t have to show up: you can live in a perfect little English-speaking bubble for a lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with that if it suits you, but if you’re up for the adventure of really learning Hebrew, here are the top 10 things they won’t tell you about in class:


If you’re Jewish, then you already know more Hebrew than you think. Think you know nothing? I bet you know the word “Shabbat” and the word “Shalom.” Put them together and you have a whole sentence. Every Friday afternoon you’ll sound like a pro. Think about words and phrases like “mazal tov” and “l’chaim” and you have the beginning of a real vocabulary. As you continue to learn, familiar words from childhood will pop up at surprising moments, reminding you that Hebrew is not just a language: it is YOUR language.

There's more to learning Hebrew than simply attending ulpan. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
There’s more to learning Hebrew than simply attending ulpan. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)


If you’re not scared, then you’re doing it wrong. It’s like riding a bike: you have to get on and try, even if you think you’re not ready. You WILL fall off and skin your knees. A lot. It’s the ONLY way to learn. Period. In the real world that means USING Hebrew as much as you possibly can, whether or not you think your Hebrew is any good. If you occasionally sound foolish, that means you’re doing something right!


Order off the Hebrew menu. In the beginning, my goal was to find one item on the menu I could understand, and that’s what I ordered. If I couldn’t understand any items, I’d order anything I could pronounce. Sometimes I ended up getting a surprise, but I never forgot the name of that particular dish.


Fall asleep at night listening to talk radio. I remember letting the language wash over me, with no pressure to understand. Something about the human brain finds a rhythm in all that gibberish, and it makes a difference. With the advent of streaming audio on the internet, this option is available to you even if you’re living abroad.


Watch TV. My friends suggested watching the Children’s Network because the language would be fairly simple. A good idea in theory, but I found children’s programs didn’t hold my interest. I then discovered that Israeli “reality” TV shows are even easier to understand than children’s shows. I’m not sure what that says about the state of Israeli television, but thanks to the local versions of Survivor, Big Brother and The Bachelor my language skills have gone up, even as my overall level of culture has probably gone down. Again, on the internet Israeli TV is available no matter where in the world you live.

'Big Brother:' Easier to follow than Hebrew 'Sponge Bob.' (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
‘Big Brother:’ Easier to follow than Hebrew ‘Sponge Bob.’ (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)


Go to the theater. In the beginning a friend asked me, “Do you think you’ll understand?” I cheerfully replied, “Probably not!” Understanding doesn’t matter — showing up is what counts. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be a little bored, but every once in a while you’ll catch a phrase or two, and it feels like the biggest victory in the world. Besides, you’ll need some real culture to counteract all that reality television.


Yoga. You’ll hear the same phrases repeated over and over while doing physical movements to match. If you don’t understand you can always look at the person next to you to figure out what to do. That’s pretty much how I manage in a Yoga class even when I DO understand! You’ll learn body parts, movements, grammar, and conjugations, all without pen or paper. Even better: you’ll actually REMEMBER!


Just look around you! The world is your classroom. Read billboards, newspaper headlines, street signs. Talk to people, ask directions, give directions, have an argument. Sit in a coffee shop, order in Hebrew, and then sip coffee and read the newspaper like a real Israeli. Even if the best you can do with a newspaper is struggle to sound out the words, I promise, it makes a difference! If nothing else, you’ll look very Israeli with your coffee and newspaper. With the internet, Israeli newspapers are another option that is available anywhere in the world.

'If you’re not scared, then you’re doing it wrong.' Reading the Hebrew headlines should become part of your routine. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
‘If you’re not scared, then you’re doing it wrong.’ Reading the Hebrew headlines should become part of your routine. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)


Get some Hebrew-speaking friends. Step out of that tempting little English language bubble, visit a Hebrew speaking family for Shabbat dinner, or go out with friends for drinks. Even if you’re sometimes left out of the conversation, all these experiences add up.


Take a “glass is half full” attitude. I never ask myself if my Hebrew is “good,” but only whether it’s better than it was yesterday. The changes kind of sneak up on you: I now enjoy the company of Hebrew speaking friends without feeling left out; I order comfortably off Hebrew language menus; I understand (and enjoy!) radio, television and theater; and I even attend high level political and business conferences. For my latest challenge, I’m taking an acting class and, “davka,” I’m doing pretty well! I still make mistakes, and sometimes I even feel a little foolish, but I’m doing better than I did yesterday, and that’s all that matters.

About the Author
Daniel Pomerantz is the Senior Editor for the media watchdog HonestReporting and teaches Legal & Financial Aspects for Entrepreneurs at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. He is also a frequent guest on i24 News as a media/political analyst. Daniel previously served as CEO of Playboy Israel as well as a business attorney in the US.
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