Sweating Hebrew: For What?

By Alex Pomson

In 2004, when our family made aliya from Toronto, I was interviewed by a radio journalist at the CBC, The Canadian Broadcasting Company. She wanted to know why we were giving up the comforts and quiet of Canada for a new life in a less stable part of the world. I answered, “So that our children [then 8 to 13] might write poetry in Hebrew.”

What I meant, if expressed a little facetiously, was that we wanted to live life in a fully immersive Jewish culture, to which in time we hoped we would be contributors and not only consumers.

Contemplating our 13th Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel, our bar mitzvah year, one of our children actually has been known to share his (quite good) poetry on Facebook, another child is currently teaching Hebrew in a US day school, and the younger children (all now in their twenties) do indeed find it easier to express themselves in Hebrew than English. Like their first cousins who were also raised here, they are the first generation in our family to be more proficient in Hebrew than in their mothers’ tongues. This, if anything, is an expression of the astonishing revolution wrought by Zionism.

For me, personally, Hebrew continues to be a challenge. Visiting the optician with my wife, I have to check first with her whether I should be asking about adashim or adashot (lentils or lenses). When the pizza delivery boy wants to know how to get out of our front gate, I regularly tell him to press the button under the aillim (idols), rather than the alim (leaves). I consistently mismatch nouns with the appropriate gender adjective.

When the great part of your education and most of your life has been lived in English, then reading, writing and speaking in Hebrew does not come easy. I can teach in Hebrew and make myself understood passably well, but when I listen to the news and feel the unrecognized words piling up, my attention drifts. If I’m going to read an article in Hebrew (books still seem a long way off), I have to be really sure I want to, and then I have to concentrate. That’s hardly reading to relax.

And yet, I persevere. I want my son’s soon-to-be wife – a sabra – to realize that her fiancé’s father, despite speaking in a second language, can be a witty fellow. I want to participate in this society without relying only on English news sources. I have numerous good reasons for persisting.

These personal thoughts sharpen my perspective on a study of Hebrew in North American day schools – Hebrew for What: Hebrew at the Heart of the Jewish Day School – I recently completed with Jack Wertheimer and my colleagues at Rosov Consulting, One of the study’s most challenging findings was that older students typically perceive themselves to be less proficient in Hebrew communication than do younger students. They also enjoy learning Hebrew less than do their younger peers. The longer students stay in day schools, the less confident many of them become about their Hebrew.

Some readers of our findings critiqued our methodology: older students are more self-critical than younger ones, they said; we’re not comparing like with like. Others complained that we weren’t telling them anything new: educators have long noticed that students’ cognitive development outpaces their facility in Hebrew; that’s why they feel they can’t express their thoughts so well. Others, in the Orthodox sector, explained, that students’ spoken proficiency might decline, but their Hebrew textual literacy continues to grow. In the older grades, schools have diversifying priorities. They give less time to Hebrew for communication and more time to Hebrew for text study.

I have a different take, informed by an insight associated with the Proficiency Method for language learning and by my own daily struggles with the language. In the early phases of learning a language, the gains come quickly, and the motivation to learn comes from a sense of making progress. The satisfactions are intrinsic to the task. We thrill at being able to say things in a foreign tongue. At some point – sooner or later – we hit a wall. We enter what the Proficiency Method people call a “silent phase” where language leaning advances less dramatically, and the intrinsic pleasures are not enough to sustain our language growth. We start to say less even if we understand more. And the question is what might it take for us to scale that wall or break through the silence.

In this difficult phase of language learning, the question dawns, why I am doing this? What’s the point in persevering? Those who continue to experience progress in the language – maybe because of a talent for language acquisition – barely notice the wall. They continue to find intrinsic satisfaction in their progress. But the rest of us need compelling reasons to continue sweating over this language. I already hinted at my motivations: my own self-esteem at home and in the university classroom is on the line. I want to fit in and contribute to a Hebrew-speaking society.

In Jewish day schools geographically removed from Israel, those particular incentives aren’t so compelling. Instead, educators need to create contexts where it makes sense to persist with Hebrew. In this regard, “school structure and learning goals, whether explicit or not, are important in shaping students’ educational experiences.” This was a key finding of a literature review on foreign language learning commissioned by CASJE, the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (which Rosov Consulting also works with). That same review also found that strong relationships with relatives in the language’s country of origin, and return trips there, increase the likelihood that students would use the language, gain advanced proficiency and feel positively toward it.

Thus, educators need to provide students with relevant goals and reasons for persevering with this task. If teachers would truly only respond when students speak in Hebrew, that would provide reason to persist. If students know that they need Hebrew to communicate with peers in Israel – not just on a two-week trip but on an ongoing basis -that would be another reason. And if teachers would be ready to explore with students what they see as compelling reasons to study Hebrew, that would make a difference too. As our research showed, schools could and should do more to make the case to parents and students about why it is worth persisting with this language. Hebrew proficiency starts with answering the question “Hebrew for what?”

Dr. Alex Pomson is Managing Director at Rosov Consulting.