HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

This Is Your Brain on Hebrew

by Joel M. Hoffman Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Six years in the field can frequently save six hours in the library.” The message of this well known quip is clear: It’s more efficient to learn from research than to reinvent the wheel. But educators in the field don’t always have the luxury of keeping up with research.

Reasonable questions include: Should students learn the Hebrew that their peers in Israel speak? Should students learn to speak the language of the Bible? Should students be able to compose prayers in liturgical Hebrew?

Here, then, are five specific tips—one about vocabulary, two about grammar, one about modern versus biblical Hebrew, and one about assessment—that will help you improve your Hebrew-education program. Each one takes advantage of clear research results.

Vocabulary: Be Careful of Clustering

It’s easier for students to learn words that are not related to each other. Or, to put it differently, it’s harder to learn words that either cluster around a common meaning or sound approximately the same as each other.

Articles of clothing—“shirt,” “pants,” “socks,” etc.—demonstrate the first group. The meanings of those words are all related. Similarly, segolate nouns in Hebrew—melekh (“king”), yeled (“boy”), rekhev (“vehicle”), etc.—sound similar, so they are an example of the second group. The first pattern is called
“grammatical clustering.” The second is “semantic clustering.”

Both kinds of clustering make it harder for students to learn vocabulary, so both kinds should be avoided. That is, the worst way to teach words that center around a common theme is to present them
all at once, just as the worst way to learn words of a certain pattern is all at the same time.

Most of the color words in Hebrew—kachol (“blue”), adom (“red”), katom (“orange”), varod (“pink”), etc.—demonstrate both kinds of clustering simultaneously, so certainly the color words shouldn’t be
taught all in one lesson.

But surprisingly, most textbooks (and therefore most teachers) do just that. They teach color words all at once, just as they do with articles of clothing or a new pattern of noun. In so doing, they ignore a basic research result and make vocabulary acquisition much harder for the students than it needs to be.

Rather than giving students a list of colors one week, a list of clothing words the next, and so forth, a well-designed program will pick one or two words from each category, so the students will learn,
say, one color, an article of clothing, a verb or two, and so on.

Word Forms: For Whom?

Hebrew words forms—binyanim and mishkalot (verb and noun patterns), prefixes, suffixes, etc.—are such a basic part of the language that they inevitably play a central role in Hebrew education. So teachers and other educators face a variety of crucial questions about the role of grammar in their programs.

Two of the most important questions are how old children should be when they first learn Hebrew grammar, and how that grammar should be presented.

The answer to the first question may surprise a lot of people.

Grammar is most appropriate only starting in middle school. Developmentally, grade-school students are generally too young to know what grammar is. So just as, say, metaphysics is an inappropriate topic for grade-school students, so too is grammar, Hebrew or otherwise.

This isn’t to say that younger children can’t pass tests on grammar. They can. But they won’t know what it is that they’re learning, because until about middle school, children are ill-equipped to study
language the way adults do. They just speak. (Or not.)

So a well designed program will not overtly teach grammar to children until middle school.

Related to the issue of age is the question of how best to teach grammar, because flawed grammar-teaching often teams up with flawed assessment (see below) to mislead educators, creating a disconnect between what teachers think they’re teaching and what children learn.

Again, children can pass a test on grammar, so it might look like children can learn grammar. However, instruction in grammar often leads to short-lived positive test results but little real knowledge. In a typical scenario, children are taught, say, that “plural words end in -im.” Then they are asked on a test either how plural words end or what -im indicates. Either way, they get the answer right. But all they’ve learned is to answer what the teacher expects. They haven’t learned anything useful about Hebrew, because they are too young to fully appreciate what grammar is.

Even in middle school and onward, grammar should be taught in context rather than as its own topic. So, for example, rather than teaching that “an aleph marks a future first-person verb,” teach “this is how
to say, ‘I will go’...” Otherwise, even middle-school students may study the material and pass the test, but skip the part where they learn something useful about Hebrew.

Making the Old New: When Hebrew Isn’t Hebrew

One particular challenge in teaching Hebrew is that most people who learn modern Hebrew (also called “Israeli Hebrew”) encounter older dialects of the language as well, in prayers, for example, or in the

But Hebrew has changed significantly since it was used in the Bible. In fact, Israeli Hebrew is so distinct from biblical Hebrew that most Israeli schoolchildren have trouble understanding the Bible in its original Hebrew. Schools in North America, however, often teach modern and biblical Hebrew simultaneously, creating a jumble in the minds of students.

As an example of the magnitude of the problem, we need only look to common biblical passages that are quoted in the liturgy. The first word of the Ve’ahavta, for example, not only has a different meaning in modern versus biblical Hebrew (“you loved” versus “you will love”) but the pronunciation is different: ve’aHAVta in Israeli Hebrew and ve’ahavTA in the Bible. Similarly, uvish‘arekha (“and in your gates”) is most naturally expressed as vebashe‘arim shelkha in modern Hebrew. (And, for that matter, the biblical word refers to the gates of a city, a concept foreign to most children in the West.)

Programs typically adopt one of two flawed solutions to the dilemma created by these competing dialects.

One mistaken approach is to teach both dialects at the same time. Judaics teachers, for example, might present biblical Hebrew during one period, while Hebrew-language teachers present Israeli Hebrew
during another. Not surprisingly, this confuses the students, who, at best, are generally able to excel at only one of the two.

Or worse, programs ignore the reality of modern Hebrew, wrongly assuming that Israeli Hebrew is “pretty close” to biblical Hebrew. This approach justifies teaching both at the same time, but it comes
at the expense of teaching modern Hebrew accurately. Students spend time learning myriad details of biblical Hebrew (such as the nuances of BeGeD KeFeT, which have gone the way of the dodo in spoken Israeli Hebrew), at best never really learning the material, or at worst working hard to master a language that no one speaks anymore.

Not surprisingly, issues surrounding the role of ancient Hebrew in our modern lives are emotionally charged, and it’s sometimes hard to make rational decisions, but a good program will recognize the vast
differences that exist in various Hebrew dialects, and choose carefully which ones should be taught.
Here ideological concerns mix with pedagogy, so answers are sometimes elusive, but reasonable questions include: Should students learn the Hebrew that their peers in Israel speak? Should students learn to speak the language of the Bible? Should students be able to compose prayers in liturgical Hebrew? And so forth.

One sound solution is to teach Israeli Hebrew as a spoken and written language to younger children, offering biblical Hebrew to older students much in the way that Shakespeare is presented to native
English speakers.

Evaluation: What You Hear Is What You Get

Not surprisingly, evaluating progress in something as complicated as language is not easy. For example, even though an accurate accent is one of the least important parts of learning a foreign language, a native speaker tends to judge other people’s competency in a language primarily based on their accent. In other words, native speakers who hear someone speaking with a good accent will think that that person speaks the language well, in spite of any grammatical or other mistakes. The same native speakers will tend to think that someone who speaks with a flawed accent doesn’t speak the language well, even though that person’s speech may have much better grammar and vocabulary.

This is one reason that most people think young children can learn foreign languages faster and better than their older counterparts. (It’s not true, as researchers have demonstrated—teaching a language too early can impede progress later, and high-school students make the fastest progress learning a foreign language.) It is true, however, that by and large children do a better job learning a foreign accent. Combined with the disproportionate weight most people put on accent, this creates the false impression that young children are always better equipped to learn a foreign language.

More generally, this situation highlights the importance of objective evaluation when it comes to foreign language acquisition.

Unfortunately, most Hebrew evaluation so closely mirrors the method of instruction that students are able to succeed even if they bypass the step of actually learning Hebrew. For example, a typical lesson might teach four Hebrew roots (even though we’ve already seen that teaching grammar by itself is a bad idea), and then, on a test, ask for the meanings of those four roots. Children can pass the test never even knowing what a root is. And they frequently do.

A better solution matches the evaluation to the final goal (ability to express a thought in Hebrew, say, or to read and understand a paragraph in the newspaper) and specifically divorces it from the techniques used to teach the material. For example, a test might ask questions about a Hebrew passage than can only be understood by students who have mastered certain material.

The drawback of this kind of evaluation is that it creates double work for program designers, who now have to create lessons in one way, and tests in a completely different way. But the payoff is a much better sense of what kinds of teaching work, what kinds don’t, and how well the students have learned Hebrew.

Summary: Five Steps to Success

Five things you can start implementing this summer include:

1. Don’t teach vocabulary in clusters.

2. Don’t teach grammar to grade-school students.

3. Don’t teach grammar in isolation to anyone.

4. Don’t mix biblical and Israeli Hebrew.

5. Don’t make tests a mirror of instruction. ♦

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman holds a PhD in linguistics and consults regularly to supplemental and day schools across North America. He can be reached through his website, www.Lashon.net, which also lists references for this article.

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