I first began my study of the Hebrew language as a second-year student at OCC with Dr. Larry Pechawer. I studied under him for two years, during which we did a full year of grammar using C. L. Seow’s A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew and then a full year of translation, starting with the Joseph story with Professor Yerushalmi’s The Story of Joseph (Genesis 37; 39-47) and then moving on to direct translation of the book of Hosea and several other portions of the Hebrew Bible. We also translated the Siloam Inscription (Hezekiah’s inscription on the water tunnel in Jerusalem) and the Mesha Stele in the ancient Hebrew script (עברית קדומה).
I would say that I had a great introduction to the Hebrew language as it occurs in the Bible and in extra-biblical inscriptions within my first two years of Hebrew study. However, if you had asked me to communicate in Hebrew at that point, I would not have gotten too far. I could read the Bible and understand what I was reading, so long as the text had nikkud. There was also a copy of the Babylonian Talmud in the college library that I tried to read. The text was unpointed, however, and I had a difficult time of it. In many ways, then, the courses that I took at OCC prepared me for what their purpose was: to give me the tools to read the Bible in its original language. I am more than grateful to Dr. Pechawer for the hours that he invested in my education and in providing me with a better way of viewing the texts of the Bible.
Writing Notes in Hebrew
When I started taking interest in communicating in written Hebrew, the only tools at my disposal were the words that I knew from the Bible. I had already been away from OCC for a couple of years, and I would go back to Dr. Pechawer’s office to visit him. When he was away, I would leave him notes on the dry-erase board he had tacked up outside his office door, saying things like בָּ֫אתִי לְהַגִּיד שָׁלוֹם וְלֹא הָיִ֫יתָ בְּמִשְׂרָֽדְךָ, which is kinda strange, but I didn’t really know that modern Hebrew says הַמִּשְׂרָד שֶׁלְּךָ instead of מִשְׂרָֽדְךָ, but I was using the tools at my disposal. I’m not sure to what extent he ever understood my Hebrew notes, since he rarely responded. (Email was still a new thing at that time, and Unicode hadn’t yet been invented to cover all of the non-English languages of the world.) I mean, there was nothing grammatically wrong in what I wrote (I’ve always had a solid grasp of how Hebrew works fundamentally), but the expression was a mix of the biblical way of expressing possession with modern vocabulary. Whereas it is completely fine to say אָחִ֫יךָ “your brother” or בֵּיתְךָ “your house,” it is less acceptable to say מִשְׂרָֽדְךָ “your office” or דִּירָֽתְךָ “your apartment” (though these are technically correct).
When I look back on that period now, I can see that it was an important stage in the development of my ability to use Hebrew competently. We must be willing to make mistakes, to put ourselves out there, and to look less competent than we are. There is no “saving face” when it comes to language acquisition. For this fact, I am so appreciative of the students in our latest course, who have willing been filmed for our YouTube channel together with their successes and their failures. They have been more than gracious as they have put their questions and frustrations out there for the world to see, and it is so worth it! Their learning is inspiring, and their successes are many, and I am thankful for their willingness to participate in this adventure.
So, I would take what I had learned over the previous two years and use the words and structures to leave biblical Hebrew-style messages for my professor. A big step in taking the step from reading alone to utilizing the language is to begin to formulate short, meaningful messages in the new language. There are websites and chat forums for composition of simple Koiné Greek messages to move students from reading to production. This is especially difficult when students have not received comprehensible input (CI) from the beginning of their studies.
Comprehensible Input in the Acquisition Process
The next step in my learning was to purchase two different books: (1) HaYesod: Fundamentals of Hebrew and (2) Hebrew from Scratch. The first re-enforced the grammatical principles that I had learned in the biblical Hebrew courses and added some basic modern vocabulary to my treasury of words saved in my memory bank. I took Hebrew from Scratch more seriously in that I took the reading portions and reviewed them again and again. The audio CDs that I purchased alongside the text helped me adjust my ears as much as possible to hearing Hebrew and learning its patterns of intonation. I worked through the first and second levels of that course on my own, focusing on expanding my vocabulary by adding everything listed there and both listening to the readings on CD and also opening the books and reading them aloud to myself again and again.
When I moved to Israel, I had already covered both levels of Hebrew from Scratch, and I was ready to begin listening to real speakers. I couldn’t understand people when they spoke at normal pace, but I was certainly able to make some sense of where I was. Even with such preparedness, I still went through some serious culture shock. In fact, for the first year I barely left the apartment where I was living except to go to work and to go out with friends. I didn’t even get my driver’s license converted; so, now I live here in Israel without a driver’s license, since I cannot drive on my American license.
For the first five years of my life in Israel, I worked as an English teacher of Hebrew-speaking students. I wasn’t able to teach or explain anything in Hebrew, and the classes were delivered completely in English. But, students often asked me questions in Hebrew, and the more they asked questions (and I responded in simple English), the more I understood what they were saying. Over the first year, I heard so much Hebrew from students that I started to process their speech, and outside of the classroom (we were not allowed to use Hebrew in the classroom), I began to piece things together, to form my thoughts in Hebrew, to formulate what I wanted to say—and to be ready to ask questions to fill in gaps in my ability to speak.
At some point, my friends decided not to speak English with me anymore. They decided that they would help me become confident in Hebrew by speaking with me only in Hebrew, and my social life transformed my ability to understand and to express myself. ONLY THEN (to my great fortune) did I enroll in an ulpan class. I had been in Israel for just over a year, and I finally had time to commit myself to a three-times-a-week course at the nearby ulpan. The first class I enrolled in was Alef+, and I was there for about a month. When it came time for the text, the administrator of the ulpan told me that I would not be allowed to take the test because I hadn’t been there for enough hours (hadn’t taken the full course). I went to her office and argued my case with her in Hebrew (not completely fluent Hebrew, but good enough Hebrew!), and she agreed to interview me and see if my Hebrew was good enough to give me credit for the first level and put in the second course.
At the end of that interview, she allowed me to take the exam, and I entered the second level (Bet) ready to go. I sat through the whole course and became friends with some Russian speakers and the one American who was in the classes with me. By the end of the course (which I thought was fantastic), I took the exam for Gimel and scored 94%. My experience of ulpan was a success, but that was, to a great deal, due to the preparations I had made on my own before going into the ulpan.
The most important piece of the puzzle in my learning to speak Hebrew was, come to find out, the comprehensible input that I forced myself to encounter. The girl from my ulpan class became a good friend, and (since we lived near each other) we started to meet on Saturdays in the park and read פּוּ הַדֹּב (Winnie the Pooh) together in Hebrew. I would force myself to speak Hebrew at the grocery store (even when people started to respond to me in English). I would make sure that I was doing everything I could to listen in on my friends’ conversations when they came to visit, just sitting nearby and following along with the stories they were telling. I would open Israeli television channels online and follow along with series that I found both comprehensible and entertaining. I found that I followed Israeli Survivor (הִשָּֽׂרְדוּת) with regularity and learned lots of useless phrases (“immunity is up for grabs!”), but listening to the stories that people told in between the competitions was useful to me.
The Value of Free Voluntary Reading (FVR)
Dr. Stephen Krashen talks a lot about free voluntary reading (FVR) in his presentations, and I cannot get over how right he is on this question.
In the ulpan, the teacher gave us loads of worksheets that had reading passages for which we needed to use a dictionary to look up words, to read through it, to translate it, and to be ready to answer questions in Hebrew in the next class session. I took these worksheets as something that I wanted to read. I would take them home, sit down with them, read them again and again until I could read them fluently and understand them. I think this might be where things begin for foreign language acquisition. You need to find something that is simplified to your level, that you can read and process, from which you can expand your vocabulary.
When I started to read Winnie the Pooh with my friend from the ulpan, that was something that we had chosen to add to our regular readings that we were receiving in class. After I had finished ulpan and had begun using Hebrew regularly, I sought out a reading group (which I discovered through my synagogue at the time). I joined a group that met twice a month and read entire books/novels in Hebrew. We read The Jewish Dog (הַכֶּ֫לֶב הַיְּהוּדִי), The Girl in the Opposite Balcony (הַנַּעֲרָה בַּמִּרְפֶּ֫סֶת מִמּוּל), and a few other books that don’t come to mind right now. I would write in the books, mark words that I didn’t know (in pencil), work through it hard and push through the texts so that I would be ready to read aloud when I met with the group members. I was always challenged to pick up new vocabulary, to wrestle with unpointed text, and to transition from knowledgeable to fluent in modern Hebrew.
Reading is where you collect words and increase your comprehension. Reading is where you have grammar demonstrated again and again, and it is where you run into the exceptions that need to be addressed in order to really grasp the structures. Reading builds syntactic connections in your brain. And all along, I was able to draw from the pool of expressions that I encountered in those books in my daily life and the conversations that I had at work and in my social life.
What’s the point of this? Cover the grammar. Grab all you can from “study books.” But, in the end, you will only become fluent with the language through the exchange of real messages (communication) and through reading—especially reading that you find interesting and engaging. That is where language is acquired. Good luck in your journey into Hebrew! I wish you all the best!