Ivrit Where It Counts

By Rabbi Joshua Fenton

Every day at 1:45 pm the announcement is made in the Edah afterschool program, “Ha Misada Petucha” (the restaurant is open). The Misada is part full-service restaurant, part immersive language learning space, and it hums with activity each day as children sit at the counter and order something to eat.

The walls are covered in placemats from Israeli restaurants. A menu is posted each day using images of foods rather than words to read. The different blessings for food are on the walls. Everything is in Hebrew. The Misada is almost always full of kids, ordering, singing and chatting in Hebrew while sitting at the counter. Eating, cooking, and even hanging out in the kitchen all offer great opportunities to engage in meaningful language learning that sticks. Here’s why:

Language learning and food pair well

There’s no better place to learn a second language than in a kitchen or restaurant, surrounded by food. With just a few simple phrases mastered, much of the ordering experience can be done in the second language. Food nouns are wonderful first words and easy to remember when associated with tastes and smells. You can play with food vocab at home, too. Everyone loves to teach their family new words for the foods they eat every day.

Kitchens and restaurants are full of props

When children learn their first language it’s usually at home, surrounded by the smells, tastes, and sites they’re most familiar with. While parents don’t always point and gesture to help with understanding, children listen and watch all the time, making meaning and connections. It’s how we learn. When creating and working in immersive language learning environments, props are important tools. The opportunity to point at foods and utensils, to make faces that demonstrate tastes and sensations, are all wonderful techniques for language learning and a part of every kitchen and restaurant. Additionally, children pay attention when they know there are hints and tools for understanding all around them. In our Misada eyes are always moving around the room, tracking the servers’ hands and facial cues for hints to help understand. And the kitchen has so many props, which makes for the perfect language learning space.

Cooking and recipes are great for learning a language

Our Misada also functions as a teaching kitchen. Every week there are multiple opportunities to bake and cook in the Misada, and it’s all in Hebrew. Educators explore recipes in Hebrew with the kids using songs and games. Counting and measuring plays a big part, and offers great introductory vocabulary, which provide immediate returns on the investments. Kids get to eat the food they cook. And after working through the Hebrew, it feels great to taste success and understanding. “I baked that cake all by myself and we only spoke Hebrew when we did it. Even the recipe was in Hebrew.”

New foods and new language learning both require taking risks

It’s not easy to learn a new language. Practicing speaking a new language can be very disarming. It’s a risk to try making new sounds and stringing words together and the kitchen counter is a perfect place to take those risks. New foods and tastes often accompany new words in our Misada. Trying new cuisines add risk-taking dimensions that are both fun and comforting for the learner. We are all in this together and we are all uncomfortable, and that makes risk taking feel a lot less risky, and a lot more fun.

Food engages all our senses

When we learn a language while eating, making, and playing with food, all our senses are working together, and that’s engaging. Our eyes are taking in not only the new foods but the preparation of them as well. Our ears hear the crunch of eating, the chop of preparing, and the sounds of Hebrew as servers and learners work together to understand each other. The smells of the food are an exciting reminder of what’s going on. Our sense of touch is engaged as we cook, eat, and pass forks or salt. And taste – there’s nothing like a taste memory to situate itself in the brain and stick for a long time.

Hebrew immersion is often seen as an impossibility in the supplemental education world. You don’t need a fully immersive school or program to create moments of language immersion and opportunities for authentic language learning. Try baking challah for next Shabbat using a Hebrew cookbook and only speaking Hebrew to the kids. You’ll see how immersive language learning moments are possible in a variety of settings and how they offer youth learners opportunities for fun and meaningful engagement. Who’s hungry for lunch?

Rabbi Joshua Fenton is Executive Director of Studio 70: A Jewish Learning Laboratory.

Cross-posted on Studio70.org