The Israel that I encountered when I arrived here in January of 1973, was a very different Israel than the one you’ll meet on a day-to-day basis today. One of the major differences 45 years ago was that the vast majority of the people who walked the streets of Israel then had actually learned Hebrew as a second language.
One of the most important lessons I learned in that first year was not to be embarrassed to speak incorrect Hebrew. At least then, almost everyone that I encountered would cheerfully and politely offer me a correction or suggest a more appropriate way of saying what I wanted to say.
The advantage of the Israel of 45 years ago was that the entire world was an ulpan.
I remember one time while visiting Tel Aviv, as I walked down the street, I mentally reviewed all the Hebrew words for the various objects that I saw. Being a commercial street the various storefronts carried large very visible signs. For the life of me, I could not remember the Hebrew word for a sign. As everyone was generally so willing to help me learn the language, I politely stopped the first pedestrian that walked by. Pointing to the nearest sign I asked my question “?מה זה” [“What’s this?”] When my interlocutor didn’t quite understand what it was I was asking I tried again. “?איך קוראים לזה” [“What do you call this?”]
As it became clear that my question was still not understood, I started pointing to various examples of commercial signs and each time repeated my question. Our interaction evidently attracted attention and various other passers-by stopped to listen to our exchange. Several even offered their opinion as to exactly what it was I wanted. A kind of impromptu game of Charades spontaneously developed with a group of strangers on a busy Tel Aviv street in the middle of a Spring morning.
Finally, one very astute woman figured out that I was talking about signs. With great drama and clear enunciation, she pointed to one sign and slowly said “שלט”! She then pointed to multiple examples and said “שלטים”! Being the dutiful student that I am, I also pointed to one sign and repeated her example. A look of approval spread across the faces of my audience. Proud of my accomplishment I then proceeded to point to multiple examples of commercial signs and again parroted her carefully articulated suggestion for the plural of signs. The twenty or so people that had gathered around us spontaneously broke out into applause.
Today it’s difficult to turn a stranger on the street into your personal Hebrew tutor. It occurred to me though, with the ubiquitous smartphone in the hands of every Israeli, perhaps there could be a modern equivalent. To this end, we established Sicha Yomit Online and cobbled together a number of easily available online applications, merging them into a virtual community of people who want to improve their day-to-day conversational Hebrew.
Membership in this community and the day-to-day support that I and other volunteers provide is total without charge. On the other hand, if someone specifically requires a one time or a series of one-on-one tutorials, that is also available at what we hope is a very affordable price.