Not Just For Olim Anymore

Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, several English speakers circled around a pair of large wooden tables trying to learn Hebrew. They were in Ahuva Tal-Hollander’s program at West Side Institutional Synagogue, one of the largest Hebrew language programs in the city. Some were secular Jews who were dating someone religious or Israeli; others had become religious and wanted to better understand the Torah; and still others were American medical students preparing for classes in Israel this fall. While virtually none of them plans to live in Israel permanently, each was studying the intensive method that has become synonymous with immigration to Israel—ulpan. The ulpan method, which emphasizes conversational Hebrew, was developed the same year Israel was established, with a simple goal: get everyone AHA speaking the language fast. “People didn’t even have to know Hebrew letters,” said Yoel Wachtel, a senior lecturer of Modern Hebrew at Georgetown. Practical concerns like where to find the bus and how to ask for a job were stressed over the formal instruction of grammar and syntax. The massive influx of immigrants gave rise to scores of ulpan centers within Israel, which are still used today and are heavily subsidized by the state. As the ulpan system grew—there are now roughly 220 ulpanim in Israel, which have enrolled over 1,200,000 immigrants since 1949—certain key elements have been replicated abroad into what is generally called “the ulpan method.” Most importantly, the method requires Hebrew be taught exclusively in Hebrew, with grammar informally incorporated. Textbooks, if required at all, stress Israeli culture and history over verb charts and proper pronoun placement. But a lurking question seems to nag this approach: can ulpan method courses be effective outside of their state of origin? “The ulpan method in America does not – and cannot – serve the same function as in Israel,” said Joseph Lowin, the former director of the National Center for Hebrew Language, which closed due to lack of funding in 2004. “Most ulpanim meet here once or twice a week,” he added. “You tell me how much Hebrew you can learn in that time?” The problem is not that the ulpan method doesn’t work, but that outside of the language’s native home—Israel—the time required to become fluent is near impossible to match. In a widely cited study from 2001, the scholar Alice Omaggio-Hadly found that acquiring any foreign language requires at least 720 hours of study, and as much as 1,320 hours to become fluent. In contrast, even the most rigorous Hebrew language courses in the United States average about 40 hours for one course. “You have to go to the native land in order to become fluent,” said Wachtel, who used to teach adult education ulpan courses too. “This is really a major obstacle.” At Tal-Hollander’s Ha-Ulpan program on the Upper West Side, students take a five-week summer intensive course that meets for three-and-a-half hours, four days a week, or 70 hours total. During one exercise, students paired off and asked each other basic questions—what is your favorite activity? When did you last visit Israel?—and only occasionally did students default into English. “How do you say ‘health?’ ” Sarah Golub whispered sheepishly to her teacher, Miri Karmar. “Bree-oot” Karmar whispered back. Hebrew instructors in the U.S. say that it is inappropriate to ask whether using the ulpan method outside of Israel is effective. Particularly for adult education courses, the goals of each individual student dictate the courses’ success, unlike in a university. As opposed to college courses, which often use the ulpan method too, tests are rarely given. “It’s totally self-directed,” said Tal-Hollander. “We don’t want our students to have any stress or pressure.” Vardit Ringvald, a Hebrew professor who runs the Hebrew Language Program at Brandeis and is author of a widely used textbook “Hebrew in Context,” cautioned against judging the ulpan method’s success in the U.S. too. “It’s dangerous to say whether it’s effective or not,” Ringvald said. “It depends on your goals.” Still, she noted that Hebrew language education in the U.S. can use plenty of improvement. Most Hebrew language courses—whether they use the ulpan method or a more traditional academic approach—have no clear set of standards. In universities, for instance, Hebrew language teachers are often hired who have no real training in language instruction. Instead, many hold Ph.D.’s in Hebrew literature or are fluent Hebrew speakers with some other kind of education degree. But often they have never taught the language before. “The chaos we have in the field right now can be attributed [to the fact that] there is no true standards,” she said. Ringvald has tried to implement master’s degree programs for Hebrew education at universities nationwide. But the process has been slow—she said she knew of only three in the U.S. so far. Meanwhile, other efforts at standardization have recently failed too. Lowin’s job at the National Center for Hebrew Language disappeared along with the center after the Jewish Agency stopped funding it in 2004. That year he established the Council of American Ulpanim, publishing a directory of approved ulpan courses, and planned to set standards for Hebrew language instruction. But, Lowin said, “It no longer exists.” The lack of standardization also makes it difficult to find legitimate Hebrew courses. For instance, many synagogues and local JCC’s hold Hebrew classes, but they are a far stretch from the type of learning that goes on in an ulpan course. The directory for ulpan courses on the Web site of Nefesh b’Nefesh, an organization that prepares Americans for immigration to Israel, no longer works. “All the information is so unreliable and incorrect we don’t even use it anymore,” said Renana Levine, a press representative for the organization. In New York, the two major ulpan programs are run by the JCC in Manhattan and Tal-Hollander, who used to direct the JCC’s program before founding her own company in 2002. Called Ha-Ulpan, Tal-Hollander rents out space from the Manhattan Jewish Experience headquarters on the Upper West Side, and offers a few more classes around the region. A typical course costs around $600, and she prefers her teachers have a minimum of five years experience teaching in the ulpan method or in Israeli universities. If they do not have either, she will train them herself, she said. Marc Arkovitz, a physician who recently immigrated to Israel, took an earlier session of Tal-Hollander’s summer intensive course; in addition, she provided him with a private tutor for one whole year, who instructed him for three hours a week. In a phone interview from Israel, Arkovitz stressed that he never expected to become fluent before moving to Israel, and with that in mind, said: “I think it prepared us as well as it could.” But he added, “like any language, you have to immerse yourself in it to become fluent.” Though he expects to take another ulpan course in Israel soon, he said the ulpan course in New York was worth it. “Absolutely. Now I can take the ulpan here at a higher level.”

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