January 1, 2008
More options available locally for people who want to learn Hebrew
And while interest in learning modern Hebrew is expected to bloom in advance of such trips, Hebrew instructors say there is more to learning the language than simply studying vocabulary and grammar. In addition to learning to read (and write) in cursive Hebrew and without vowels, there's the mastery of idiomatic expressions and understanding cultural nuances. And let's not forget that telltale American accent.
In addition to tourism, reasons for wanting to learn the language can be as diverse as the names on the Hebrew class rosters. For some it's a deep-seated expression of Jewish pride, while others see it as a practical first step toward making aliyah -- immigrating -- to Israel.
Also known as Israeli Hebrew, new Hebrew or standard Hebrew, the spoken language of modern Hebrew was revived during the 19th-century movement to establish a homeland for the Jewish people and won out in a tug-of-war with Yiddish. The modern interpretation of the biblical language uses Sephardic pronunciation as well as borrowed American, European and Arabic terms.
Yona Sabar, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at UCLA, says that the Jewish community should focus more attention on greater Hebrew literacy, because it has the greatest potential to unify diverse Jewish communities.
"Hebrew should be on the agenda," he said.
While Jews represent the majority of students taking Hebrew at the university level, non-Jewish Asian, Arab, black and Latino students have been known to take a year or two to meet their language requirement. Some do it as a change of pace, while others are focused on adding a skill for professional development. Today's university Hebrew students include professors and graduate students studying the language for academic reasons, as well as a minority of Christians and Muslims who want to learn the language to better understand Israel.
Rivka Dori, director of Hebrew studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Los Angeles and an instructor at USC, says she has one student who recently joined her class because he signed to play with Tel Aviv's Maccabi Elite basketball team.
Among the Jews who take Dori's class, she says, some are seeking to truly expand their knowledge and connect with their roots. "The others think it's going to be an easy grade, and they discover two weeks into the semester that it's not the case," she said.
In continuing adult education programs, the majority of learners want to pick up Hebrew to communicate with friends or colleagues, read Israeli publications or use the language while on vacation in Israel. Some are converts who are enthusiastic about their Jewish identity, while others are seeking to make aliyah in the coming years and want to be ready to integrate themselves into Israeli society when they arrive.
Still others are the children of Israeli American parents who want to take their language skills beyond the basic conversational level.
And while some non-Jews attend modern Hebrew classes after studying biblical Hebrew, another segment of the non-Jewish community has developed an interest in the language because of contact with Israeli American friends.
Based on experience, Yair Nardi no longer assumes people in Los Angeles don't speak or understand a little Hebrew. The Calabasas Hebrew High teacher and tutor says that non-Jewish friends of Israeli Americans frequently pick up phrases over time, and that there's no telling who can understand what he's saying when he uses Hebrew in public.
Once when he was at a mall, he remarked in Hebrew to his son about how a woman's dog was ugly.
"She turned around and said, 'It's not an ugly dog and it's not nice what you said,'" Nardi recalled. "You really have to watch it."
Nardi believes we are living at a unique time, because more non-Jews are learning and using modern Hebrew than at any other point in history.
As far as how long it will take for a novice learner to begin speaking the language, teachers say most students can expect to know rudimentary phrases within a few months. Anything more depends on a variety of factors, including previous exposure to the language, the age of the student and time devoted to study.
Undergraduate and graduate university programs typically meet five hours each week with the addition of a language lab, while continuing education efforts like the American Jewish University's Whizin Center for Continuing Education or the Israel Aliyah Center/Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles' Hebrew Ulpan for Adults meet once a week for about two to three hours.
Most adult modern Hebrew programs today conduct classes using an immersion -- or ulpan -- method, in which Hebrew is the only language spoken after the first or second class.
"The brain has to think in Hebrew," said Ziva Plattner, who has taught at the Hebrew Ulpan for Adults for eight years "It's like building a building. You have to start from a foundation and work up."
The point of the system is to acquire vocabulary quickly and learn to use it without consciously thinking about conjugation or rules like subject-verb agreement.
"What's important is to remember how it is used in the language within the pattern they are learning and then they transfer this knowledge to other sentences and they construct the vocabulary," said Liora Alkalay, Hebrew coordinator at the Whizin Center for Continuing Education. "And gradually, after a year, most of our students are speaking Hebrew quite learnedly."
HUC-JIR's Rivka refers to the method as "language elegance."
"Grammar is a nasty word in the field. It's not a way to study language," she said. "You can study about a language, but not internalize any of it. So you can know about a language, including the linguistic aspects, but still not have any functionality in the language. What Hebrew educators are trying to do is teach students to be functional in the language."
Class sizes in an ulpan setting are kept purposefully small, typically about six to 10 students, to ensure greater interaction between teacher and students.