Even though you could probably get by just fine in Israel without learning much Hebrew, it has been really important to me since before we even arrived that we learn this ancient language. Besides being practically useful as a day to day language (being both an ancient language and in common use in modern times still astounds me), Hebrew is a key to integrating better into our new home and understanding Israeli culture. At least, that’s how I see it.
We placed our kids straight into a Hebrew language school, despite them only knowing a few scattered words, instead of an immigrant school which teaches in English and Hebrew. It was tough for them in the beginning but, after a few months, they started speaking and understanding the language at a remarkable rate. I’m so envious of their sponge-like brains!
As immigrants, the Israeli government gives us a number of absorption benefits that include free Hebrew language classes (called “ulpan” classes – not to be confused with “kibbutz” which is a different activity altogether). For adults it basically works out to 5 months full-time (mornings or evenings, 5 days a week) or 10 months part-time (I go to class 2 evenings a week for about 3 hours each class).
It is an incredible opportunity to learn and, as tiring as it is working full-time and then still going to classes and returning home late, I generally love going and make a concerted effort to do my homework and learn as much as I can. Unfortunately my older brain doesn’t absorb nearly as much as our kids do (or maybe I have more insecurities and inhibitions that get in the way) but it’s all slowly sinking in.
The challenge is making sure you use Hebrew as much as you can instead of defaulting to –
אני לא מדבר עברית
(“I don’t speak Hebrew”)
… and then switching to English. You get to a point where you can’t say you don’t know the language when you clearly know a little so procrastination takes the form of –
אני מדבר קצת עברית
(Roughly, “I only speak a little Hebrew”)
My latest is asking the person I am talking to to speak slower because the primary challenge now, besides my limited vocabulary, is that Israelis speak really quickly and have a tendency to blend distinct words into something that sounds like one word. One example that always comes to mind when I think about this is, ironically, –
מה אתה עושה
… which, instead of being pronounced “mah attah oseh” (“what are you doing”), sounds like “matta-oseh”. There are many other examples and, as I learned, also many contractions that are legitimate parts of the language. These are wonderful reminders about how little patience Israelis have for drawing things out any more than is absolutely necessary.
Anyway, as much as I am learning, my Hebrew is roughly comparable to my son’s (I know this because I can just about help him with his homework) but not as “advanced” as my 5 year old daughter who even has the accent down. While this is fine for homework purposes and talking to teachers who are accustomed to speaking slowly and using small words; it doesn’t help our kids advance their Hebrew.
We had a meeting with our daughter’s teacher who told us that our daughter works hard, has learned a lot in the short time she has been here and excels in most areas of her classes. Her concern is that our daughter’s Hebrew is still underdeveloped, relatively speaking, and this could hamper her progress in school (I was assured that language alone will never be a reason to hold her back). The teacher basically told us (this was all in Hebrew so it’s an educated guess on my part) that our little girl needs to be exposed to more advanced and varied Hebrew than the Hebrew she is exposed to at school and when she is with her friends.
There are things we can do to help her, for sure, but what this discussion highlighted for me is that being unable to speak more advanced Hebrew than our kids is hampering them. Our friends are native Hebrew speakers and can guide their kids like we do in English at home. It is obvious when you think about it but when our kids study in Hebrew and are also new to the language, not being able to correct their grammar or read story books at a normal pace and with fluent inflection is problematic.
As a writer, my limited Hebrew is frustrating. I can use the English language considerably better than I can use Hebrew so, on one hand, I look forward to a day when I could write an article like this as clearly in Hebrew as I can in English. On the other hand, it really bugs me that I am still trying to figure out past and future tense and my kids ask me to stop reading to them in Hebrew because there aren’t enough hours in a day.
Learning Hebrew (and any other language) isn’t always easy. It has different rules and forms, most of which are very different to English (which is a pretty bizarre language too, if you think about it). I’ve discovered that I am really interested in the language and have a strong desire to learn it well and that helps on days when it seems like I can’t string two words together (I call those days “bad Hebrew days”).
Returning to the discussion with our daughter’s teacher; if anything, it highlights the importance of not procrastinating and just throwing myself into the linguistic deep-end. I’ve started forcing myself to use Hebrew when I know it and throw in English when I don’t (no idea if that confuses people I speak to – probably does). Like anything new, it requires persistence and I’m still working on that too (although, as Yoda famously said: “Do or do not, there is no try”). I also really like something my ulpan teacher often says; that to learn Hebrew we need to –
לקרוא ( (to read)
לכתוב (to write)
לדבר (to speak)
And to love it
Bottom line: knowing more Hebrew is probably just as much about being able to help our kids adapt better and live up to their potential in a new country as it about being able to order decaf coffee and pay with correct change.