In a meeting room in the District one evening last month, 10 people sat at tables, trying to sound out Hebrew letters and make sense of nekudot, the lines and dots that represent Hebrew vowels.
To help these students in their 20s and 30s learn to read the Hebrew aleph-bet, their teacher, Keren Yairi, had given them a folder full of color-coded charts and rules.
“I don’t feel confident, but I seem to be doing things correctly,” said Gabriela Bernstein, of Washington. “I hope I retain what I learn and it’s good for my brain — I can tell it’s a good challenge.”
For those who think that if they didn’t learn Hebrew by the end of Hebrew school the ancient language is beyond them, experts have some reassuring news. It isn’t impossible to learn to read Hebrew as an adult — or to write and speak it. It just takes dedication.
“We know from research that there are two parts of language learning: acquisition and learning,” said Avital Karpman, the director of the University of Maryland’s Hebrew program at the School of Languages.
Karpman said that, according to linguist Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition, “acquiring” is the subconscious process of picking up a language. “Learning” is a conscious effort to learn the grammar and rules of a language.
“Kids might learn quickly but may also lose quickly,” Karpman said. “Whereas an adult who has taken the time to learn the rules, they will retain it.”
Many Jewish community centers and synagogues offer Hebrew classes for adults. Synagogues often focus on learning to read rather than understand Hebrew, so that adults can follow along in the prayer book during services.
Yairi’s class, through Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, is aimed at beginners. By the end of the 11-week class, students should be able to have a basic ability to read Hebrew and feel comfortable reading the prayer book, Yairi said.
Many of her students are new to Judaism. They may be considering conversion, or they were born Jewish and are reconnecting with their roots.
Yairi, a certified English as a Second Language teacher, has taught both children and adults.
“It’s very satisfying to me to be working with adults, because a lot of them have a great motivation to learn,” she said.
Pipe cleaner pedagogy
In her classes, Yairi often uses methods that are traditionally associated with elementary school classrooms. She and her students play word games, have language show-and-tell and sing Hebrew songs.
“Part of it is just that it’s fun and engaging. They pay more attention,” Yairi said.
But there are different types of learners, such as visual learners, auditory learners and kinesthetic learners. While everyone can benefit from these techniques, she said, they may specifically help someone with a particular learning style.
During class, Yairi passed out red pipe cleaners. The class was learning the letter “chaf,” so she had the students bend their pipe cleaners into the three-sided block shape of the letter.
But chaf also has a sofit, which is used whenever chaf is the last letter in a word. So Yairi directed students to straighten out the bottom of their pipe cleaner. Now, there is a top to the letter, and one long side — it has become a chaf sofit.
This exercise can help students become more familiar with the letters, and remember the differences between them, Yairi said.
“It engages the brain in a different way and it especially appeals to kinesthetic learners, who learn by moving,” she said.
Kristin Smith, a former student of Yairi’s, enjoyed that aspect of the classes.
“It was like being a little kid a little bit. It was fun,” Smith said. “It’s like using a different part of your brain, it’s so different from what I do in my day-to-day work life.”
Hebrew is especially difficult for non-native speakers because it consists of a unique alphabet and vowel system.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, it takes about 1,100 class hours for English speakers to learn Hebrew. Immersion, Karpman said, is much more effective than limited class hours in achieving that goal.
Hebrew is categorized as a “hard language” — one with “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.” Out of four categories, Hebrew is ranked as a category three language.
A category two language, like German or Swahili, is easier to learn. Category four, the most difficult, includes Arabic and Japanese.
Meaning is important
Jeffrey Lidz, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland, said learning to read is difficult without attaching meaning to the words.
“Every human being will learn to speak a language. Reading and writing are built on top of speaking,” Lidz said. “There’s a hierarchy there, so learning to speak is kind of a prerequisite to read and write.”
Washington resident Ruth Chege, who is considering conversion, said the alphabet is one difficult aspect of learning Hebrew — but she understands why the class learns to read first.
“You know when you’re a young person learning, it’s like, ‘This is a ball, ok, this is a ball,’” said Chege as she mimed holding a ball. “In this case, we are learning to read, so it’s the adjustment between the reading and the meaning of the word. And being a whole language, I can understand that we learn first to read … and kind of learn the words later.”
Karpman, who also teaches Hebrew, said learning to read phonetically, without meaning, is an outdated
approach to learning language.
Lidz agreed, and pointed to his own experience in Hebrew school, in which he was not taught what the words meant. Applying knowledge to make meaning is called decoding.
“We learned to decode the sounds but that didn’t really help,” Lidz said. “You need meaning to decode language.”
However, Karpman also noted that the goal of a course will drive the approach that is used.
In the School of Languages, Karpman said, the goal is to become speakers, readers, writers and listeners of the language. For this reason, the classes at U-Md. focus on all those skills, as well as cultural use of Hebrew.
For Yairi’s beginner class, the goal is to simply follow along during services or to read the Torah portion for their bar or bat mitzvah. So, they also go over roots of common words in prayer books and learn some vocabulary each week based on those roots.
Yairi pointed out that there are advantages to learning as an adult that people do not have as children.
“You’ve already learned to read in your native language, so the whole idea that a spoken word can be visually represented with letters and vowel symbols, you’ve already established that as a child, so you can build on that as an adult.”
But even with cognitive advantages, Lidz said, “if you start learning a second language as an adult, you will more than likely never achieve native-like proficiency.”
Yairi said adult learners often approach learning a new language with fears and inhibitions that children do not.
Gillian Conner, one of Yairi’s current beginner students, said the first few weeks of learning the language felt manageable. Now, as the class progresses, it has become more difficult.
“We’re definitely in the phase where we’ve talked about lots of letters, lots of sounds, things that are just very different than learning English,” Conner said. “Now, it does take more effort and concentration to make sure that you’re keeping up with the learning.”
Conner said the progression of Yairi’s beginner class “seems very normal, and very logical.”
The charts Yairi provides showing different styles of letters — manuscript, block, and script — and explaining each vowel symbol are very helpful, her students said.
“If [Yairi] didn’t simplify it as well as she simplifies it,” Chege said, learning would be much harder.
Karpman said that what it really comes down to is the time and motivation the students dedicate to learning a new language. There are retirees who audit Hebrew classes at U-Md., Karpman said, and because of the extra time they can devote, they excel.