Monday, April 8, 2013

The argument for speaking Hebrew in America

The biggest recurring question I faced in founding Strategic Hebrew, Inc. was “why?” 

Why Hebrew?  What is the purpose of learning Hebrew in America?  What if I never go to Israel?  Anyway, most Israelis speak English…

Ultimately, I was being asked to define the value proposition of the Hebrew language to Jewish people living outside of Israel.  I believe there are many reasons to learn to speak Hebrew that are much more culturally and personally significant than ordering falafel on Ben Yehudah Street.   

For example, there are numerous studies that describe the cognitive benefits of learning a second language, such as mental agility, creative problem solving, defense against aging, etc.  These benefits apply to all second languages, so why choose Hebrew?  Is Hebrew more significant to American Jews than Spanish or French?  Absolutely, and here’s why...
The bottom line:  Tradition.  Heritage.  Jewish connectivity and peoplehood.
Language learning incorporates the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.  Stronger Hebrew language ability leads to greater comprehension skills, which in turn grant access to original texts, such as the Hebrew bible, the Passover Haggadah, and various traditions of prayer.  Understanding the text makes the bar/bat mitzvah and synagogue experience infinitely more meaningful for everyone concerned.
Raising the bar for conversational fluency also allows speakers to connect with fellow Jews throughout the world and dovetails directly with enhanced comprehension of Hebrew texts.  Through learning to speak Hebrew, even those living outside of Israel can find a deeper meaning in our daily life and common heritage.

Hebrew lessons become infinitely more powerful when they are combined with meaningful interactions.  A thirsty person will learn the words to ask for water, while a child who wants to play sports will figure out how to ask the teacher for permission.  When the motivation is strong enough, we learn the words necessary to meet our needs, and with this foundation, our growing vocabularies enliven text wherever we encounter it.
If our communal goal is to learn Hebrew for synagogue participation and text study, why stop with reading exercises and basic Hebrew decoding?  Why not reap all the benefits of having learned a second language, particularly one that connects us so strongly to our collective past and future?  Let’s put our time to good use and learn to speak in Hebrew… what do we have to lose when there is so much to gain?  

Amy Fechter is Founder and Curriculum Strategist at Strategic Hebrew, Inc. A NY State certified teacher with a Master's Degree in literacy from Bank Street College, she has extensively studied language acquisition in both theory and practice. The 'Strategic' approach is the result of more than a decade of successful development and implementation of constructivist language instruction for students nursery through adult.

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