Vital Signs: Hebrew, Nature's Way

March 8, 2010

Source: Jewish Ideas Daily


This is the third in a series on people and places fostering commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people in the United States and elsewhere by Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In it he tells of a special Hebrew language immersion program implemented for pre-schoolers at the Jacob Pressman Academy, a Conservative day school in Los Angeles.


Wertheimer writes: "The Pressman program is based on a body of educational research suggesting that languages are not taught but acquired. Rather than subjecting students to drills and rote memorization, let them absorb a second language the same way they learn their mother tongue—by hearing and speaking. A second body of research focuses on the ways that developing brains create neural pathways. For children under seven, it emerges, second languages are stored in the mind just as the mother tongue is. After that age, completely different pathways must be formed, and language study becomes commensurately more difficult. At Pressman, notes Frieda Robins, who launched the experimental program there and at two dozen other places around the country, children coming out of immersion classes into the elementary school are able to talk in both English and Hebrew "about their school, family, friends, homes, holiday celebrations, everything."


What prompted the initial experiment, co-sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Covenant Foundation, was a troubling and somewhat paradoxical fact of American Jewish life. Hebraic literacy, not to mention fluency, has declined significantly over the past 60 years, just as the Hebrew-speaking population of Israel has flourished and grown almost to the point of overtaking the American Jewish community in size. As a consequence of this decline, although Jewish education is thriving in this country, it is conducted almost entirely in translation. Indeed, when it comes to Hebrew, American Jews are far less fluent than Jews in most other Diaspora communities.


With the program's proven track record of success, the school has gained renown in Los Angeles as the place for acquiring Hebrew at an early age. What is more, the school ensures that pupils continue with Hebrew immersion as they progress through the lower school, adding reading and writing comprehension to their repertoire even as they deepen their store of Judaic knowledge. "

Updated: Mar. 21, 2010