Five month aliyah update: kids learning Hebrew

>>Are the kids picking up Hebrew well?<<

Before we came, everyone said the kids will pick up the language in no time.  “By Chanuka”, they predicted, “your kids will be fluent”.

Nonsense.  Fortunately I didn’t believe this before I got here or I’d be wondering where I went wrong.  I think it’s accurate to say for a child under the age of 5, by Chanuka/December, they’ll be basically able to figure out what’s going on.  It’s very wrong to assume that older kids will learn at the same rate as younger kids, and I don’t think this is just how the brain processes. It’s how the language is presented.

When you’re in a playgroup or kindergarten, the teacher says something like, “Come, children” and motions at the same time.  Your child watches what everyone else does, and sees the hand motions.  Then it’s time for a project, and the teacher says, “Everyone take out a scissor” – holds scissor in the air for everyone to see – “and cut your paper” – again demonstrating.  At a young age, a good part of the language is show and tell.  This makes it drastically easier to pick up a language, because you have clues about what the words mean.

Last week on Thursday, I picked up ds5 from school, and his teacher was so excited to tell me how much Hebrew he’s speaking to his classmates.  I think she might have been more excited than me!  He understands most of what goes on; comprehension precedes speech, and thankfully he’s now at the point he can talk to his peers.  A couple of mothers at the recent party told me their children had told them that ds5 used to not speak Hebrew, but now he does.

Ds4 knows a lot more than I think his teachers realize.  He often says things in Hebrew at home, which annoys dd17 because she wants them to exclusively speak English at home so they’ll maintain their fluency.  I feel that home is a safe place for him to try out his vocabulary, so I don’t  mind the Hebrew, but she told me that this is how it begins, Anglo parents let their kids speak Hebrew at home and then they don’t speak English well.  She’s right about that, but told her that we have to balance a few things, and right now need to make the immediate transition as comfortable as possible for the littles.

Now let’s jump to an elementary or high school class.  Kids are sitting there the entire day, with no visual cues at all.  Notes are written on the board and have to be copied, and the kids can copy what they see without any idea what they’re writing.  There is no hook to hang information on – it’s very hard to guess what anything means, and it’s not until you have a baseline working grasp of the language that you can make those educated guesses.

Dd11 and ds9 have two hours a week of tutoring – leaving hours a day to sit in a classroom with very little idea of what is going on.  I think ds9 is picking it up faster, from his comments at home, but then again, he got tutoring help immediately.  Dd11 didn’t get help right away, and when she did, I shared a while back how she was being expected during her tutoring sessions to do complex translations of biblical texts.  Not helpful.  Ds9 sometimes says things to his younger siblings in Hebrew; again, I think this is a ‘practice where you feel secure’ thing.

Dd11 has yet to say a word to anyone in Hebrew.  Her tutor is concerned but I told her that dd11 will speak when she’s ready.  At this age, you don’t want to say two word sentences to your peers; it’s embarrassing.  Her older siblings are trying to encourage her to speak with them to help her over this initial challenging stage.  Sometimes I speak to her in Hebrew as well, saying a sentence first at a normal pace, the second time slowly, and then break it down so she can hear the specific words.

A huge reason for putting the kids in school was I thought they’d learn Hebrew faster and better than if they stayed at home.  I don’t regret sending them to school, but I do think that I underestimated what I could have done at home.  I definitely feel they would be more advanced in Hebrew if I was working with them daily.  I planned for them to supplement with Rosetta Stone each afternoon, but when my husband’s computer went down about seven weeks ago, he needed to use mine all day long and then the kids couldn’t access the program.

I haven’t made myself their ‘tutor’ at home, though I do have them practice reading and sometimes translations when I can find suitable reading material.  Two weeks ago dd11 read all the headlines of the easy reader version of the newspaper, which was great because then she knew about things that were happening that later came up in discussion at our dinner table.  I skipped last week because of the bar mitzva preparations, but plan to get back to actively working on Hebrew with them – I can see that the tutoring and being in a Hebrew immersion environment is good, but they would still benefit from more assistance; it would help them build the critical language base sooner.

Ds13 is doing well, but he went in with a decent biblical vocabulary.   So he had much more of a starting framework to figure things out.  That being said, what it means is that he can speak in simple sentences with his peers.  In a way, his working vocabulary was picked up in a similar way to the littles – on the playground, he quickly learned the words for: throw, catch, foul, idiot.  Smiles or yelling clued him in quickly to how boys were reacting to different plays.  He’s not getting any tutoring, because his school doesn’t want to bother with filing to get the government approved hours – but I somehow didn’t think of getting him tutoring help until recently, because he seemed to be managing without it.  Even though he’s doing okay, he would be picking things up faster if he had some help.  I was relying too much on him being a smart kid who gets things quickly.

Dd15 is picking up the language nicely.  She recently started having simple conversations in Hebrew, but can understand much more than she can speak.  She has applied herself from the beginning to learning the language.  She makes notes daily on her notepad of words she hears, and asks me for translation when she gets home.  She’s learning the grammatical structure of Hebrew, which she’s finding extremely helpful.  She’s in class with a difficult social framework so she doesn’t have peers to practice speaking with, but she’s finding opportunities.  Last week her principal determined that since her comprehension is growing, her two weekly hours of tutoring should be spent on doing the tests given to everyone else in class instead of learning the language.  Right, she doesn’t understand a lot of what’s going on in class but it should be a priority for her to take the tests so they can have the feeling she’s a real student getting grades.  I really don’t understand the mindset of the administration sometimes – or maybe I do, but it’s so focused on fitting into the system rather than what’s best for the student – but fortunately her tutor doesn’t agree with this either.  So she and dd have determined a respectful way to deal with the administration’s demands, and I didn’t have to go to the school again to make ‘suggestions’ of how to adjust their handling of the situation.   (Too hard to discuss these things on the phone, particularly on cell phones which are constantly breaking up- I find in person works best.)

Dd17 started the school year with the best vocabulary of them all, thanks to being in Israel last year.  She was in an English speaking program, but still picked up enough Hebrew to ease the transition this year.  She’s not anywhere close to sounding like a native speaker, and it’s likely she’ll end up speaking with a light American accent but speaking pretty fluently.  That’s assuming she stays in a Hebrew speaking environment for the next year and a half.

Ds18 isn’t learning Hebrew at all, and I’m letting him deal with all of the beauracratic stuff on his own – health insurance, the army – I hope that realizing how much he needs the language will motivate him to make achieving Hebrew fluency more of a priority.  But honestly, he is exactly the age and stage of boys who spend a couple of years learning here, and is in a program set up for Americans.  I’ve made a suggestion that I hope in another year he’ll follow up with that will allow him to learn the language well (in addition to meeting other goals), but for now I’ve agreed not to ruin his visits home by talking about it.  :)  When your child gets to a certain age, you really realize that you’ve had your chance to actively raise them.  Now it’s his turn to raise himself and make his own decisions, and it’s not in my hands.  He’s a mature and well-thought out young man, and I’m trying to trust him to make good life choices, even though they may be different from what I would suggest.  It’s a lot of letting go!   So at this stage, how well he speaks Hebrew isn’t really a big issue.

One thing I think we did well in was coming to a community that isn’t Anglo dominated.  There’s no question my kids are picking up the language much faster than if they had English speaking peers to interact with.  That would have definitely been nice for them and eased their initial transition, but this is the country and culture we live in, and I want them to have the tools to effectively navigate life herer.   It may be a little harder for them at the beginning stage (and I think we’re at the end of the very beginning!), but it will be easier in the long term.

Oh – I almost forgot to mention what I think a realistic expectation for a child to learn the language is.  I’ll update when we get further along, but my expectation is that after within a year, the kids will be socially fluent, but from  upper elemenatary and up, will probably still need remedial help academically with challenging subjects.


3 thoughts on “Five month aliyah update: kids learning Hebrew

  1. Ja’el
    I wanted to thank you for that link. At first glance I think it’s really going to help me with teaching my kids modern hebrew in while we’re in America. Thank you!

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