To learn Hebrew, just have fun

To have your four-year-old pick up Ivrit is both miraculous and surprisingly easy

By Miriam Shaviv, August 26, 2010

Parallel universes exist mostly in the realm of science fiction. But this summer, I was privileged to enter my own alternative reality. For four weeks, I got to see a life I could have lived but don't, a child I could have had, but don't. I got as close as I will probably ever get to bringing up Israeli children.

It all began about a year ago, when I became determined to teach my two daughters Hebrew. This was, admittedly, partially about me - I grew up in Israel and speak the language fluently, and cannot imagine my children not sharing something so integral to my identity. But it was, far more so, about what I desire for them.

Hebrew is the key to Jewish texts and liturgy, and I do not want my children to be able to tackle them only one step removed, in translation.

I also want them to be able to talk to their Israeli cousins; and to forge a connection to the Israeli state, its culture and its people. While good Hebrew is not a prerequisite for
a strong bond with Israel, surely those who overcome the language barrier can understand Israeli society far more deeply, and navigate it with greater ease.

At first, I concentrated on speaking Hebrew at home, but while my four-year-old seemed to understand most of what I was saying, she was always more comfortable answering me
in English. Gradually, I hatched a plan. We were going to enrol her in a summer camp in Jerusalem, where she would be immersed in the Hebrew language, be exposed to vocabulary I would never give her, and mix with Israeli children.

In America, Hebrew immersion programmes are ever more popular

This is how we ended up, one Sunday morning last month, in the dusty courtyard of the Natural History Museum in the German Colony. Finding the right framework had been difficult; most Israeli camps take place in early July, before English schools have broken up, and many do not take four-year-olds. But the museum's kaytana, or day camp, met all our criteria. It was also small - just 100 children - and used to dealing with children from abroad, as each year, around 10 per cent of the intake came from overseas (mainly America and France).

Best of all, the programme was incredible. The children built exploding volcanoes, planted tomatoes, and learned about beehives. Suddenly, instead of having boring Hebrew conversations with me about bath time, my daughter was telling me about "dinosaurim" and "shladim" (the skeletons she touched in the museum).

Indeed, the great leap forward in her Hebrew was nothing short of miraculous. Within a week I could tell a difference; by the end of the month, she was confidently chatting to native Israeli children, while telling me "lo rotza" and shrugging. I have no doubt that had we stayed another couple of months, she would have been completely fluent. My English rose was rapidly morphing into a Sabra.

For me, the experience confirmed that the easiest time to learn a second language is in early childhood, and that the best way to do so is by hearing and speaking - the same way we learn our mother tongue - and not in formal lessons.

It seems a shame, then, that here in the UK, there are still some Jewish primary schools which do not teach Hebrew as a modern language at all, and that many others devote too few hours to the subject to achieve real fluency. In America, there has in recent years been a revival in Hebrew teaching, with Hebrew immersion programmes becoming increasingly popular and several state-funded ("charter") schools, catering both to Jews and non-Jews, specialising in Hebrew and teaching almost their entire curriculum in that language.

When are we going to follow suit, and start making Hebrew language teaching a top priority? Kadimah!

Last updated: 11:17am, August 26 2010