Toward Full Hebrew Proficiency

Apr. 07, 2017

Source: eJewish Philanthropy 


The academic benefits of language immersion have been known for over 50 years and, in the case of Hebrew, for at least the past 25 years, since two Australian professors of linguistics, Tim McNamara and Edina Eisikovits, and I collaborated on a landmark study of Hebrew language immersion in a Jewish day school in Melbourne. The findings on attitudes toward Hebrew language study are more recent: this month, the results of a study of attitudes toward Hebrew language learning in 41 Jewish day schools across North America were published by Professors Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer.

Entitled “Hebrew for What? Hebrew at the Heart of the Jewish Day School”, the study surveyed students (in 5th, 8th, and 11th grade), teachers, and parents regarding their perceptions and expectations of their school’s Hebrew language programs and their assessments of students’ proficiency. Among the interesting and provocative findings are the following:

  • Overall, the older the students, the less satisfied they were with their Hebrew instruction and the less proficient they believed they were. (A small minority of schools were exceptions to this rule; see below for more on this.)
  • There was no correlation between the particular Hebrew language curriculum used by teachers in a school and the attitudes of students, teachers, or parents. Rather, these assessments seemed to be a function of something broader and more significant than the materials used in class. The researchers concluded that the key variable is culture, namely how highly valued or important Hebrew is in the daily life of a school.

There were six schools that Pomson and Wertheimer identified as outliers: schools in which satisfaction and perceived proficiency were higher across the board and in which older students were more satisfied and considered themselves more proficient in Hebrew than younger students did. For example, at one of the outliers, Ben Porat Yosef, stakeholders were three times as satisfied with the items mentioned at the beginning of this article as in the comparison schools. The authors of the study noted that the shared characteristic of the three schools that bucked the trend is that they all invest high levels of messaging, resources, and leadership in support of the study of Hebrew.

The secret is out of the bag: Hebrew immersion confers a huge advantage on students, not only in their Hebrew proficiency, but also in their Jewish learning, in their overall academic progress, and in life.

Read more on eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Apr. 19, 2017