Learning Hebrew: Reflections on Teaching and Learning Part I

I may be on leave from work, but I’m a teacher and a student of teaching no matter what.  One goal Chuck and I share for this trip is to make some real progress in our Hebrew skills. Both of us had our Hebrew fluency heyday 40 years ago when we could read the newspaper fluently and understand the TV news and shows easily.  Shall we say we’ve aged since then and been away from Hebrew?  Being the competitive souls we are, we jokingly argue about whose Hebrew is better (truth is, mine is…) but we’re awfully close in our Hebrew skills.  Both of us can navigate everyday life well (despite the language dance I wrote about before), but when we watch TV, they talk so fast we can’t catch a lot of it and when Israelis talk amongst themselves, forget about it.  Furthermore,  neither of us can talk intelligently in Hebrew about our work, politics, or any complex topic. As you’ve read, we’re working on our food ingredients vocab via menus and we found out that Petrozillia is parsley among others we’ve learned.  Many restaurants have English menus too, and our strategy now is to ask for one in Hebrew and one in English and compare.  We went to a lovely dairy restaurant for dinner the other night and when we compared the menus, we found there were things on the Hebrew one that weren’t on the English one.  When we told the waitress, she said they hadn’t updated the English ones yet.  So on all fronts, it was a good strategy since we ordered something that was missing from the English menu!

In addition to our constant pursuit of sign, ad and flyer comprehension, we hired a Hebrew tutor, Lior Yatziv, who was recommended by my colleagues at Kibbutzim College here in Tel Aviv.  Of course I assumed this was a man by the masculine form of the name (Liora is feminine), but lo and behold she’s a lovely young woman.  She came for the first time yesterday morning and we sat out on our roof terrace for an hour and half of hard work that was fun.  She’s a terrific teacher and I told her that was a high compliment coming from me.  She started out telling us we were only going to speak Hebrew (YES!) and if we don’t know a word, we’re to try to explain it with other words rather than say the word in English and just ask for a translation. Once we make it relatively clear to her what we’re trying to say, she teaches us the new word.   If we don’t understand a word she uses, we’re to ask.  We now have a vocab notebook where she writes down our new words as we go along.  She began by telling us about herself and then asked each of us to do the same. She got a big kick out of hearing about how we met in Jerusalem in 1969 when Chuck knocked on my apartment door and asked if he could take a shower.

As we got further along in our stories,  we had to try to explain our careers (kareera in Hebrew).  If one has trouble speaking the language, the expression in Hebrew is “breaking one’s teeth” and we sure broke our teeth, but we moved forward with Lior’s support and encouragement.  When Chuck had trouble explaining what’s he’s done as medical director of large health insurance plans, I offered the following example in Hebrew:  “He created methods for doctors to learn whether their patients have that disease that makes them very sad, so they can get better and this new procedure helped doctors find hundreds of thousands of people with the disease. ”  Then we learned the words for depression, treatment, protocols (it’s protocols…), and Chuck remembered the word for population.  We can now tell that story with the correct, intelligent vocabulary! When I told her I have been dedicated to urban education and social justice through teacher education, we learned  that she identified (new word) with that because she volunteers with youth refugees from Darfur and we learned new words for non-profit, relief organization, homeless (it’s without a roof over one’s head, not without a home).  We also learned the word for frustrated!  The time flew by.

Once she left, Chuck and I realized we couldn’t remember most of the words we had learned much to our distress.  Plan B.  We have found mnemonic devices helpful, so the word for complicated is moorkav and kav means line in Hebrew and more lines is more complicated.  Now I’ve got that one fixed in my head. Whatever works I say! We’re also spontaneously quizzing each other during the day to try to cement our learning.

It is obvious to both of us that our fluency is deepening, even though it’s only been five days here.  What’s happening?  First, immersion is at work.  Second, we are actively trying to understand what we don’t yet know, using Google Translator, each other, and other people.  Formally, Lior’s teaching was demanding and it had rules we had to follow, but she was encouraging and lively, and she spoke slowly without talking down to us.  Writing down our new words was clearly critical to our learning as well, as was finding ways to remember the new words and quizzing each other. Lastly, her rule that we try to explain what we want to convey when we don’t have the exact word is very helpful in expanding our general fluency, even if it takes longer than saying the word in English.

Tomorrow we meet with Lior again and on Friday, we are going on a Graffiti tour with a linguist, Guy Sharett, who was written up in the NY Times.  He has a fascinating website called www.streetwisehebrew.com and he was a delight to talk to when I called to reserve spots on the tour.  He insisted we speak Hebrew and he wanted to know about us, what we’re doing here, and why I didn’t just sign up on Facebook.  Am I the last person standing (actually the last two along with Chuck) who isn’t on Facebook?!  It’s never been a problem, but lately it’s been inconvenient a few times.  Let’s see how long I hold out on that front.  Anyway,  I’m sure I’ll have a post about the Graffiti Tour along with photographs by Chuck after Friday.  Graffiti is big in Tel Aviv, so this should be good. So much fun even with breaking our teeth!

On the everyday-what-are-we-doing front, we continue to get to know Tel Aviv, wandering around and walking everywhere.  (At first, the heat was a novelty. Now I’m ready for some more seasonal weather.  It was over 90 yesterday and today- enough already. Israelis keep asking us how we like Tel Aviv in the summer.) We have visited three museums so far- the Tel Aviv Art Museum (with a beautiful new building as you can see),

and two small museums that were the home of a famous painter (Reuven Rubin) and a famous writer (Chaim Nachman Bialik).  We had our first Falafels of this trip today- delicious street food.  We eat some meals in our apartment and that feels better than eating out all the time.   We found a takeout kosher Chicken rotisserie place and had that at home one night, and salads, cheeses and fruits for lunch work well.  Chuck had a lesson with a photographer today and he learned new Photoshop skills and new ideas for what to shoot with his camera.  Yesterday, we went to see the music, fire and water show at the Agam Fountain on Dizengoff Square. Agam is a famous, modern Israeli artist and as in most of his works, the fountain parts change colors as it rotates.  Watching the show made me smile widely and I actually got emotional, feeling the incredible good fortune and privilege it is to be able to be here in this way.

Once David teaches me to upload videos to YouTube, I’ll attach a video of the fountain with the music.  I promise it’ll be worth your time!

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4 thoughts on “Learning Hebrew: Reflections on Teaching and Learning Part I

  1. Karen Weinberger

    Dear AdaBeth:

    I am thoroughly enjoying reading your blog. In fact I look forward to your posts and photos.
    I was also quite happy to learn that there are two others who are also not on Facebook!

    • Thanks Karen- so nice to hear that you’re enjoying reading what I’m enjoying writing! Love to you and Mike from Chuckie and me.

  2. Lior Yatsiv

    Dear Ada,

    Thank you for the amazing compliments! They are indeed doubly flattering coming from someone of your professional background.

    I must say that I’m finding our sessions together thoroughly enjoyable. Not only are you and Chuck reacting wonderfully to the material, but it is also a pleasure to get to know you both! I’m really glad to know that the world has people like you two influencing it in the unique way that you do.

    I’m looking forward to hearing all about your new adventures in our next lesson!

    • Lior,
      So glad our time together is a fun experience for you too! As you said, we identify with one another. Shabbat shalom!


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