Learning Hebrew

Hebrew by osmosis

I’m thinking about taking the Dora the Explorer approach to learning Hebrew.

Somehow, by doing nothing else but placing my children in front of a TV for a half hour each day at 4:30 pm while I was making dinner, they somehow learned a little bit of Spanish.  Vamanos! Buenos Dias! De nada! (Who came up with the theory that television kills brain cells? I humbly disagree. I’m pretty sure my third child learned her colors from Moose E. Moose.)

All the Vatikim* I’ve met suggest the best way to learn Hebrew is to read the easy newspaper, watch the news on TV, or challenge yourself by placing yourself in situations in which you need to speak Hebrew.  I certainly appreciate this advice, and in fact, believe it to be true. But I’d also like to conduct my own little experiment.

Each Saturday evening before Havdallah, there is a study group that meets on Hannaton. Last week, my friend Shira invited me to the study group and I jumped at the opportunity. (This will probably surprise my beloved Rabbi Roston back in New Jersey since my greatest Shabbat achievement up until this point was learning the hand motions to “Shabbat Shalom” in sign language at the Tot Shabbat service.)

I figured that an intimate study session with the members of the kibbutz would allow me the opportunity to get to know everyone a little better; and I’d be able to partake in an interesting adult conversation. It only occured to me as the rabbi opened his mouth to welcome everyone into his home that the study group would be in Hebrew. Gulp.

(Idiot, by the way, is the same in Hebrew as it is in English. I’m not sure about, “No, duh.”)

But instead of being discouraged, I decided to stay for the remainder of the hour and do my best to understand what was being discussed. This effort lasted about ten minutes, until I realized that I wasn’t going to pick up much more than “Blah, Blah, Blah, Mitzrayim. Blah, Blah, Moshe, Blah, Blah, Yehudim.” Certainly not enough to contribute to the discussion or appreciate the contemplative points other participants were making.

So, I came up with a better idea. Hebrew by osmosis.

Of course, learning language through immersion is not an original idea. This is the theory behind Ulpan or semester abroad or Baby Einstein DVDs.  Would the same principles apply if I simply return to the Torah study group each Saturday night? Will I absorb the language simply by actively listening to my friends ponder Mishnah and debate the commentary of talmudic scholars? Especially if I look into their eyes, focus on their lips, and try really, really hard to understand?

Is it possible that one Saturday night, months from now, I will stand up, tug thoughtfully at my beard, and say in Hebrew: 

“And as Rashi said on the Tanakh — but particularly his commentary on the Chumash…”

I have a hunch this would be possible for someone else. But, not for me.

I’m not one of those unique individuals who has an ear for language. My ears are, in fact, a teeny tiny bit deformed. (It’s genetic and usually well-hidden by my hair; so stop looking.) While medical science has yet to prove this, I think my unusual ears are the reason I’m not such a good listener, and not too good with languages. I took four years of Spanish in high school — four years! — and the only thing I can say is “Yo Quiero…”

“Yo quiero” I could speak Hebrew without having to work really hard at it, but I don’t think that’s happening so I better get myself into an Ulpan before my husband finds a full-time job and I’m the one who’ll have to do drop off and pick up every day by myself at which point the hope of getting myself to an Ulpan four days a week will have been a thing of the past.

So, just to be safe,  I will keep my appointment with the Ulpan coordinator tomorrow. But I still plan on conducting my experiment. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Vatikim = Veteran immigrants
Yo queiro = I want (in SPANISH)

2 thoughts on “Hebrew by osmosis”

  1. Jen,
    Just so that you know, I’ve been here for over a year, still go to these study classes, and still don’t understand everything… in fact, even 1/2 of it I may not understand. In FACT, my Israeli husband (if you didn’t notice) was asking the definition of word after word last night… In general, I find lectures are much more challenging that speaking 1:1, especially studying Jewish Talmudic texts… Forget it.
    But, I still go and get what I can out of it.
    It’s easy to say, but hard to practice, but I’ll say it anyway… Don’t get discouraged.
    Keep writing.


  2. It was hard NOT to get discouraged today when I sat in on an “Aleph PLUS” class. I do think this class is a suitable level for me, but it was like Deja Vu all over again. I’ve STUDIED this and I’m annoyed my brain hasn’t been able to retain it all. I’m considering calling up some of my hypnotherapist friends to see if they can “suggest to me” I am a confident Hebrew speaker. Maybe then all my knowledge from three years of University level Hebrew will come back to me.


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