Toward Full Hebrew Proficiency

Screenshot Sight Line

By Dr. Steven Lorch

What would you do if, with one change, your Jewish day school or yeshiva could:

  • Advance students two years beyond their grade level in Hebrew proficiency?
  • Make students three times as likely to be comfortable chatting in Hebrew, speaking Hebrew in class, and reading Israeli news and literature?
  • Make students three times as likely to be confident independent learners of Chumash, Nach, Mishnah, and Gemara?
  • Make students three times as likely to rate their Hebrew classes much better than their other subjects?
  • Make parents and teachers three times as likely to be very satisfied with their children’s Hebrew classes?

If you’re like most parents, you would contact your school’s principal and tell him or her to make that change – yesterday!

But is there such a panacea? And if there is, why isn’t everybody using it already?

There is, and it’s called Hebrew immersion.

Language immersion is a teaching method that was popularized in Canada beginning in the 1960s. It is based on the premise that school-age children who are steeped in an immersive second-language environment will learn that language as naturally and efficiently as a young child learns a native language.

Here’s how it works: a fluent speaker of the target language – usually, but not always, a native speaker of that language – teaches a class of children who do not speak that language and communicates with them exclusively in that language. Within days, and sometimes, with a highly skilled teacher, within hours or even minutes, the children understand what they are hearing, and within weeks, they are beginning to speak it independently.

The positive effects of six or more years of language immersion are well documented: not only are learners’ second-language skills off the charts, but they also perform better in tests of their native language even though they have much less practice using it in school. It also improves other cognitive abilities, some of them – such as map-reading skills – only tangentially related to knowing a second language. These advantages are not short-lived; learners retain them many years later, long after they have stopped learning in an immersion setting.

The academic benefits of language immersion have been known for over 50 years and, in the case of Hebrew, for at least the past 25 years, since two Australian professors of linguistics, Tim McNamara and Edina Eisikovits, and I collaborated on a landmark study of Hebrew language immersion in a Jewish day school in Melbourne. The findings on attitudes toward Hebrew language study are more recent: this month, the results of a study of attitudes toward Hebrew language learning in 41 Jewish day schools across North America were published by Professors Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer.

Entitled “Hebrew for What? Hebrew at the Heart of the Jewish Day School,” the study surveyed students (in 5th, 8th, and 11th grade), teachers, and parents regarding their perceptions and expectations of their school’s Hebrew language programs and their assessments of students’ proficiency. Among the interesting and provocative findings are the following:

  • Overall, the older the students, the less satisfied they were with their Hebrew instruction and the less proficient they believed they were. (A small minority of schools were exceptions to this rule; see below for more on this.)
  • There was no correlation between the particular Hebrew language curriculum used by teachers in a school and the attitudes of students, teachers, or parents. Rather, these assessments seemed to be a function of something broader and more significant than the materials used in class. The researchers concluded that the key variable is culture, namely how highly valued or important Hebrew is in the daily life of a school.

There were six schools that Pomson and Wertheimer identified as outliers: schools in which satisfaction and perceived proficiency were higher across the board and in which older students were more satisfied and considered themselves more proficient in Hebrew than younger students did. For example, at one of the outliers, Ben Porat Yosef, stakeholders were three times as satisfied with the items mentioned at the beginning of this article as in the comparison schools. The authors of the study noted that the shared characteristic of the three schools that bucked the trend is that they all invest high levels of messaging, resources, and leadership in support of the study of Hebrew.

In the case of Ben Porat Yosef, other important factors in promoting a culture in which Hebrew is valued include the following:

  • Hebrew teachers never lapse into English; they embody the centrality of Hebrew language wherever they go: in the classroom and in the hallway, in the teacher’s room and in the playground, in the synagogue and in the supermarket, in conversations with students and with colleagues (and often with parents!).
  • Public discourse – daily announcements, assemblies, family events – is conducted in Hebrew at least as often as in English.
  • When a non-native Hebrew speaker is in conversation with a Hebrew teacher, they communicate in Hebrew.

The secret is out of the bag: Hebrew immersion confers a huge advantage on students, not only in their Hebrew proficiency, but also in their Jewish learning, in their overall academic progress, and in life.

Dr. Steven Lorch is the Interim Head of School of Ben Porat Yosef.