Aviya Kushner’s July 11 article in The Forward, “No one’s studying Hebrew Anymore — That’s a big problem,” describes the well known landscape of Hebrew in higher education, noting that enrollment in Hebrew language courses has been on a sharp decline in the past several years. Kushner rightly calls Jewish Americans to task, reminding us about the critical role Hebrew can play in conceptions of Jewish identity and culture. Furthermore she supports the study of the Hebrew language as a crucial way to bridge the ever growing divide between Israeli and American Jews.
At face value, the numbers don’t lie. Yes, many Hebrew language programs are struggling to breathe. This, however, is not unlike other world language programs at universities across the United States. Enrollment in languages at the college level is on a steady decline writ large, with several universities making the leap to do away with their world language graduation requirements all together.
When it comes to Hebrew, however, the numbers Kushner provides do not appropriately describe the full landscape. The fact that enrollment in formal Hebrew language courses at the university level might be down, does not equate necessarily with fewer students learning Hebrew, or even that the importance of the Hebrew language may be on the decline. What it surely tells us, is that students are opting elsewhere. Let’s think of all the other opportunities students in 2019 have to engage with Hebrew language. Digital apps such as Duolingo are exhibiting huge growth in their Hebrew language platforms. A 2016 statistic reports 47,000 users of the application for Hebrew. Online Hebrew language ‘meetups’ are happening all over the United States with individuals who care deeply about growing their communicative language skills. Many students are opting for online Hebrew language learning with groups of peers and teachers. Of course, these models of online language learning are not necessarily an appropriate substitute for a classroom experience. Nonetheless, they demonstrate that the desire to learn Hebrew is still very much alive and call attention to that which is lacking from traditional classrooms.
Furthermore, Hebrew language usage at summer camps is growing faster than we can equip teachers with the appropriate professional skills and academic degrees. Opportunities for university students to learn Hebrew while performing internships in their field of study is becoming an ever popular way for undergraduates to spend their summers. We live in an era in which Hebrew tv series and movies are beloved by audiences worldwide. One only needs to visit the Middlebury School of Hebrew cafeteria on any summer afternoon in order to get a sense for the fervor so many students have for learning Hebrew. At Middlebury, Hebrew is one of the fastest growing out of the 11 language schools operated by the college. While students numbered less an a dozen in 2008, Middlebury is now rapidly approaching 200 learners, teachers, and scholars of Hebrew from around the world.
As a professor of language pedagogy, this is how I see it. I suggest that we ask ourselves the tough question of why we may be losing students in our formal classes in the first place, and how we might be able to infuse our classrooms at the higher ed level and k-12 level with more of what’s happening with Hebrew outside the classroom. I am of the opinion that many students who arrive at college with the choice to take Hebrew, are far too traumatized, for lack of a better word, by the poor instruction they may have experienced at the k-12 or Hebrew/supplementary school environment. More often than not, they were taught by poorly trained teachers, weak curricular materials, and lacked the opportunity to engage with Hebrew as a tool for communication. In these environments, Hebrew instruction was not about meaning making, metacognitive skills, or language learning strategies. Language was approached as a linear learning experience, with far too many students feeling like failures if they were unable to memorize large volumes of vocabulary words void of context and significance for their age or developmental stage.
Most formal Hebrew classrooms, with exceptions of course, don’t look that different today. Why would a student choose to study in a classroom focused on receptive skills, or engage with materials that are not culturally relevant or engaging? Why would a student choose an experience void of opportunities to engage with Hebrew in ways that are eye opening, authentic, purposeful, and motivating? Just because students may be at the novice level linguistically does not mean they are at a novice level cognitively. Let’s think about how we engage our learners, the materials we bring, the culture we share, the authenticity we provide.
At Middlebury, we prepare our teachers with the knowledge and skills to bring authentic cultural materials to every level and age of learners. We focus on using Hebrew for communicative real life tasks at every grade level and age of proficiency. We invite students into Hebrew through selecting materials that will ripen their engagement and enthusiasm. We focus on building and developing communicative modes rather than isolated language skills. We encourage a language curriculum built on inquiry and exploration rather than support orientations of linear language processes. We cultivate the classroom space as one to promote interaction and creation of language with an emphasis on fluency rather than accuracy. What would it look like if a first year college student interested in high tech was able to learn relevant language in Hebrew in order to connect with startups in Tel Aviv, New York, Santa Monica or Boston? What would it look like if a literature major was able to read Israeli authors and learn about how issues such as race and class manifested themselves in Israeli writing? What would it look like instead of filling out meaningless worksheets, students were asked to take pictures of summer activities and label the pictures with some of their favorite experiences to share with their peers? How great would it be if students could build towards their more general goals for self actualization while also learning Hebrew and Israeli culture? What if students could engage in cocurricular activities where they are playing soccer, singing songs, and producing radio shows in Hebrew? In schools where Hebrew programs are holding strong, and even growing, it’s happening.
Is there hope for Hebrew? Absolutely, but let’s demand a higher bar. Let’s improve our level of instruction and quality of materials to reflect what we know about best practice in language teaching and language acquisition. Let’s flip the model so that in five years we are writing articles with the headline, “Too many students frustrated by not being able to enroll in Hebrew classes in college!”