Dr. Stephen Krashen (whom I’ve mentioned in this blog before in connection to free voluntary reading) has convincingly argued again and again in favor of the success achieved in second-language acquisition by the use of comprehensible input for the conveyance of messages between speakers. In December of last year, he published a talk on his website called Optimal Input, in which he talks about the parameters of quality input for the purpose of acquiring a second language, and these are extremely useful for those who are learning Hebrew. This is what he had to say about how language input can be optimized (Krashen, 2019, pg. 1–2):

  1. It is comprehensible. This does not mean that every detail is comprehensible: Input can be quite comprehensible even if there is some “noise” in the input, some incomprehensible bits. This includes unknown vocabulary and grammar rules that have not yet been acquired but are not important for comprehension. In other words, language acquisition does not require that you understand every word and every part of every word, but language acquirers should understand most of it.
  2. Optimal input is very interesting, or “compelling.” Compelling input is so interesting you temporarily forget that it is in another language. If input is comprehensible and compelling, acquirers will often not notice the noise in the input.
  3. Quality: Optimal input is rich in language that contributes to the message and flow of the story or text. The language included in the input also gives the reader support in understanding and therefore acquiring new aspects of language. It is not necessary to make sure that certain grammar and vocabulary are used: Rich input automatically includes new, unacquired language that acquirers are ready for (i+1).
  4. Quantity: It takes a great deal of comprehensible compelling rich input to achieve competence. Optimal input is therefore abundant, which will provide more opportunities for acquisition of new language.

That last line is especially meaningful: “It takes a great deal of com­pre­hensible com­pelling rich input to achieve com­petence.” A large amount of input that holds the attention of the person who is seeking to know the new language; input that is full of vocabulary and structures that she can understand through context, illustrations, and body language (in the case of storytelling); input that is not outside of her grasp.

Where can you find such copious amounts of input for modern Hebrew? Those who are new to the language generally don’t have Hebrew children’s books in their local bookstores. They don’t comic books, novels, or graded readers at hand—because Hebrew literature isn’t easily accessible to those who do not know what to look for. Consuming large amounts of optimized com­pre­hensible input allows language acquirers of differing natural abilities  to achieve the same results. Krashen (2019) put it this way:

When acquirers obtain optimal input, individual differences in rate of acquisition are diminished and may disappear. In other words, given the right conditions we are all “gifted” language acquirers. (pg. 2)

The Case of Wesley Wood

This question came up recently with my friend Wesley Wood, who is learning modern Hebrew with me over Zoom. About a year ago, Wes approached me about the possibility of learning modern Hebrew to assist him in fluency before he approaches the biblical language. I had met Wes a while back through Greek forums, and I was impressed by how he picked up Greek so well in such a short time. This convinced me that we could easily sit down and work through something to get him to a reasonable level of Hebrew without too much effort on my part—and aren’t we all so selfish at heart?! I suggested that we begin with Chayat et al. (2000) because it begins with seven units that cover the alphabet and introduces students to the most rudimentary of vocabulary words and the commonest of expressions. We began, and Wes quickly worked through the alphabet and started to learn to read those simple vocabulary terms even without niqqûḏ. However, personal circumstances on both sides caused us to take a break, and we didn’t pick back up with that specific textbook (which I had used years ago as an introduction to modern Hebrew, having already studied the biblical language for several years).

Just recently, however, I was speaking with Jonathan about the importance of knowing modern Hebrew for fluency and for an inherent understanding of texts that you’re reading for the first time. Jonathan has his own motivations for wanting to take the next step with his Hebrew knowledge and to go beyond what he learned in seminary toward a knowledge of communicative Hebrew. It just happened that we began to speak about this when Wes was able to come back to his interest in Hebrew. At this point, we decided that we’d focus on the vocabulary and reading sections of Rosén’s famous Textbook of Israeli Hebrew. This text has served as a sort of springboard from which to launch into reading materials. In fact, we are only in section 10 of the textbook, having only gone over the present tense of a short list of verbs and basic noun-adjective syntax. We’ve barely covered anything in Hebrew grammar, yet Wes has taken some initiative in locating online reading materials for Hebrew. I’ve asked him to write up a blog post regarding his attempt to find comprehensible input as someone who didn’t speak Hebrew before this.

My hope is to be a source of knowledge for both Jonathan and Wes to help them enter this new linguistic sphere, in which information both written and spoken in Hebrew will be accessible to them. No matter what, Krashen’s opinions are certainly spot-on. In order to make real progress in being able to directly comprehend Hebrew without analyzing or parsing it, one must take in as much language input as possible. My in-road was first the short stories in the Ivrit Shalav series’ prose and poetry reader, then Winnie the Pooh, then the Time Tunnel [מִנְהֶ֫רֶת הַזְּמַן] series, then The Jewish Dog [הַכֶּ֫לֶב הַיְּהוּדִי], and then other Hebrew novels and newspaper articles, &c. Reading is essential for progress in linguistic competence, and I think Wes will have a lot to share about the progress he’s been able to make as a virtual newbie in Hebrew study.

Relevance of Input

I find myself at a solid advantage, since I can at any time go to my local branch of Steimatzky [סטימצקי‎] or Tsomet Sfarim [צומת ספרים] and pick up a Hebrew novel to bring home. In my home library, I have Hebrew translations of The Chronicles of Narnia, the entire Harry Potter series, the works of Plato, and a wealth of originally Hebrew books. That’s one of the advantages of living in Israel for nearly 15 years. You can easily find Hebrew literature (both translated and original-language) to keep you occupied all the time. The question is what the student of Hebrew can get their hands on that is:

    1. Level-appropriate. If someone is just attempting their first bit of reading, it would be too much to jump directly into academic journals written in Hebrew. Any input that is going to be relevant must present information in language that is intelligible to the reader with minimal effort. That is, spending an hour in a dictionary looking for every word or in a grammar book trying to figure out unusual forms will not show much production. Beginners need to have materials that are written for beginners, and those who are advanced might not be able to be challenged by books like See Spot Run.
    2. Copious. There must be enough material that you will not get stuck or bored by being limited to reading the same stories all the time. Only children beg for the same story every night before going to sleep. It just so happens that adults like to change it up, to experience a new tale, to let their imaginations wander. Well, I like to think this is true—and in the case of someone who wishes to acquire Hebrew, I think I’m save in that hope. It’s a bad thing to not have access to more input, so we need to find ways to constantly have more input and to move from one source to another.
    3. Engaging. Whatever you read, whatever stories you listen to, it must be something that holds your attention and keeps you engaged. If it’s not a story that you’re interested in, you will see it only as a bunch of words that hold no relevance, and you will not be motivated to remember what you read, to see it in your mind’s eye, to relate to the point of the author. If you don’t like fables, don’t force yourself to read fables. If you don’t like religious books, don’t read religious books. If you don’t like novels, don’t read novels. Find what interests you, and feel no shame in your natural interest.
    4. Enriching. What you choose to read should ideally provide you with vocabulary that you’re unfamiliar with and with syntax that expands what you are already able to use on your own. The idea is that input (i) should be a bit more difficult than what you’re able to produce in the language (that is, i + 1). It’s hard to find that balance when you’re seeking out material that interests you, but many times interest in the subject can overcome quite a bit of level difference. If you know the material in your own language and are engaged by the ideas, you are more likely to easily acquire new vocabulary, and the syntax will generally just “make sense” because it’s the message that you’re receiving rather than the specific expression of it.
    5. Free. That is, in the sense of “unrestricted,” not necessarily “without cost.” If you’re able to move from one story to another, you will not feel obligated to finish a story. That is a good thing! If you start reading a book, you don’t have to read through to the end. No one should force you to read what you don’t find engaging and interesting. You can put it down and start something new—and your reading should be completely free and unobligated (unless you’re engaged in an academic pursuit!). I recall an analogy that I read somewhere that referred to books as gardens through which the reader should feel free to stroll, smelling those flowers that are pleasant to him, making his own choices, moving at his own pace. If a certain garden has no interest for you, go to a different garden. Don’t give up reading (to break the analogy) because you didn’t find one book to your liking.

Frozen in Hebrew

Pointers for Input Seekers

I’d like to summarize all of this in a few pointers for those who are seeking Hebrew input.

    1. Try using the Hebrew expression סיפורים קצרים “short stories” on Google and on YouTube. This should turn up lots of results among which you can freely choose what you find interesting, whether written or audio-visual.
    2. Try searching for your favorite Disney songs in Hebrew on YouTube. From “Cinderella” to “Frozen,” there are Hebrew versions of your most beloved Disney songs, and you can find them on YouTube. Just put in the name of the song and add “Hebrew.” Simple as that!
    3. Try listening to Israeli music. If any song really strikes a chord with you, set about learning the words and committing it to memory. Try singing it and feeling the natural flow of the language.
    4. Keep moving in your reading habits. If you get stuck in a book or story and don’t find yourself moving forward, find something else to read. Don’t feel chained down to one specific work. Feel free to find something that really engages you.
    5. Buy a dictionary. Most successful language acquirers will tell you that there is nothing as indispensable as a good dictionary. Whether it’s digital or print, find a dictionary that you can use to look up words and keep moving forward.

At any point, if you have questions or problems, jump over the Hebrew Café Facebook group and let us know. Our members will be more than happy to help you in locating material and identifying appropriate input sources for you.

Is there anything that you would add? Comment below!

References

Chayat, S., Israeli, S. & Kobliner, H. (2000). Hebrew from Scratch [עִבְרִית מִן־הַהַתְחָלָה]. Jerusalem: Akademon.

Krashen, S. (2019). Optimal input. Retrieved from http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/university_of_isfahan_dec_2019.pdf

Rosén, H. (1976). A Textbook of Israeli Hebrew. (Second Ed.). Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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