Teaching Hebrew in America: A Zionist Approach

Winter 2016

Source: Contact Volume 17, Number 1


In the Winter, 2016 edition of The Steinhardt Foundation's Contact magazine, Rabbi David Gedzelman, President and CEO of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, advocates for the Hebrew proficiency approach to Hebrew language acquisition, an approach that emphasizes the mastery of Hebrew functional language skills in authentic contexts. It also emphasizes the primacy of oral expression over other language skills. He argues that an emphasis on reading reflects a Diaspora mentality or pre-State of Israel mentality whereas a focus on oral expression reflects a Zionist mentality in that it recognizes that Hebrew is a living, spoken language in the modern State of Israel.

The Proficiency Approach adapted for second language acquisition to the teaching of Hebrew by Professor Vardit Ringvald, director of the School of Hebrew at Middlebury College, and favored by Gedzelman, works because it parallels the natural process by which human beings learn native language as infants, toddlers and children. Language is heard, understood, spoken, read and written – in that natural order. This isn’t simply an immersion method, but an immersion method in which teachers continuously develop pedagogic strategies to help students internalize functional elements of language.

Gedzelman writes:

"To date, only a handful of Jewish day schools have adopted this approach. Some fear that it favors oral language over textual knowledge. But the research suggests otherwise: Whether it’s Mandarin, German, Spanish or Hebrew, when students first gain oral proficiency, literacy, taught correctly, has a much greater foundation to build on. That’s the way we learn languages naturally. When language instruction begins with letter recognition and phonetic decoding before the language is comprehensible, both oral proficiency and literacy suffer. Those of us who are native English speakers didn’t first learn English by tasting honey that had been joyfully smeared on the letter “A” when we were three years old. We listened for months and months to the emotion-laden language of our parents with our small brains growing synapses in response before we ever produced a word. As we gained cognitive capacity, we understood more and more orally until we began to produce spoken language in the most rudimentary ways. We only learned to begin to read English at four, five or six years old after we could understand, comprehend and speak the language. Why in most of the settings where Hebrew is taught in the Diaspora do we try to teach letter recognition and literacy before ever trying to teach oral comprehension and facility? I think the answer is deeply embedded in the history of Jewish exile.

It is a tremendous fact of creative survival that the Jewish People, having lost its land and its natural connection to spoken Hebrew, preserved its national language primarily as a written and liturgical language. We developed educational traditions by which to do so starting with the nostalgic tradition of actually beginning a young child’s learning of Hebrew by having him or her taste the honey that has been poured over the Hebrew letter Aleph. Learning began and in some quarters still begins with letters rather than heard language. Hebrew in exile was an unnatural language and therefore was preserved through unnatural means.

However, with the Zionist revolution and the resurrection, modernization and secularization of the Hebrew language in the modern state of Israel, Hebrew returned to being once again a natural spoken language. Through revolutionary discipline and force of will, Zionism’s pioneers created a new reality and the return of Hebrew to being a natural phenomenon was central to that new reality. It’s not clear whether the Jewish educational establishment in the Diaspora has thought through the educational implications of the success of Zionism for the teaching of the Hebrew language. Many Jewish schools still teach Hebrew as if Hebrew is not the language that Israelis use daily in their businesses and schools and theaters and restaurants and beaches, as if the new, living reality of a Hebrew speaking society in Israel doesn’t exist.

To my mind, the approach to Hebrew education that calls us to first speak and then write is exactly what the founders of Zionism had in mind. Teaching Hebrew this way can rightly be called a Zionist approach. Teaching in the old way cannot. The founders of Zionism dreamed of a day when Hebrew would become a natural language. That day has arrived and we must seize it by teaching in a way that puts spoken Hebrew first. Hebrew literacy will be the better for it."

Read the whole article in Contact.

Updated: Jan. 21, 2016