Monday, December 1, 2008

Why is Hebrew so difficult?

It is unsettling to walk along a street in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and hear small children speaking Hebrew. Don’t they know how difficult Hebrew is?

Why is Hebrew difficult? Or, more accurately, is Hebrew difficult? For Israeli children, it doesn’t seem to be. It’s just the way everyone around them talks.

For us, that’s part of the trouble: we’re surrounded by English, not Hebrew. Our children learn to speak English before they know how difficult English is—and with its countless exceptions in spelling and grammar, English is considered one of the most difficult languages.

An alef-bet that is different from the Latin alphabet that English uses is the most conspicuous issue. Letters that look too much like one another contribute to errors; I often tell students who are inclined to “glance and guess” when reading aloud that
even Israelis have to look carefully at every letter of every word. For a child, Hebrew letters are scarcely more difficult than English letters, and the regularity of Hebrew pronunciation is a relief after the unpredictability of English.

Because children in the lower grades of school still have a capacity for natural language acquisition, we have begun changing to pedagogical methods that draw on it: teaching oral vocabulary from kindergarten onward, even before students begin learning to read Hebrew, and focusing on “picking up” meaning rather than memorizing rules.

Research has found that three factors (other than individual students’ language ability) strongly influence students’ success with Hebrew. The first is whether a parent knows any Hebrew, e.g., to read from a siddur. Secular educators in Israel had
to change their teaching methods when they began to teach Hebrew reading to the children of olim from countries like Russia, where few Jews were familiar with the Hebrew of the prayer book. Our teaching methods anticipate that not all parents know Hebrew, but it is still helpful if parents know some Hebrew or begin to learn.

The second factor is whether the family’s congregation uses Hebrew in worship. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has written that congregations that use little Hebrew in prayer rarely achieve high student accomplishment in Hebrew—there’s just no incentive. The effect is compounded if parents seldom bring their children to services.

The third is parents’ expectations or predictions. When a parent says, “I never managed to learn Hebrew and I know my child won’t, either,” it almost always turns out to be true, even if the child has more than adequate learning ability. Or when a parent says, “You don’t really have to learn all that,” who will the child believe: the teacher or the parent?

So, for parents: first, if you don’t yet know Hebrew, begin learning. Second, bring your children to Shabbat services with some regularity. Third, cultivate the belief that your child needs to learn Hebrew and will succeed at it.