Jack Kaplowitz can gesture effectively—in Hebrew—after three weeks at Middlebury College, about 2.5 hours from Albany, south of Lake Champlain.
By JACK KAPLOWITZ
I just returned to Albany after studying Hebrew for three weeks in Vermont.
Yes, Vermont. Middlebury, Vermont, to be exact, the location of Middlebury College. And Middlebury College is clearly one of the best places, if not the best place, to learn Hebrew.
Let me back up just a bit.
I’ve known how to read Hebrew my whole life. That includes reading the entire Torah portion of Noach in shul on Shabbat.
Not One Word
I never understood a word of it. Never mind why or how. Most of the people reading this know both the “why” and the “how.”
As recently as 15 years ago, I didn’t know that “ken” meant “yes,” and that “lo” meant “no.” As the first decade of the 21st century rolled along, this seemed more and more idiotic. A Jew who reads Hebrew and doesn’t know what he is saying? I felt that I had to do something, I had to try. I didn’t know whether there was a chance of success since I’d be starting in my sixties, but I felt strongly that an attempt had to be made.
In January of 2010 I found myself in the beginner’s class in the ulpan at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. It’s a wonderful program with terrific, caring teachers. My wife, Ellen, and I studied four more winters in the ulpan there.
Not the Israelis!
However, we discovered something. In class, we spoke Hebrew. Came break time, and everyone at the coffee kiosk spoke English. Students from all over the world, from Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Austria, Brazil, France, China, Spain, everyone spoke English. Ellen and I invited our fellow students for Shabbat dinner, and they spoke English. The Israelis spoke English. I must sheepishly admit my own complicity. I spoke English. I like speaking English. It’s easy, and it’s comfortable.
In 2016 I heard about a three-week summer program at Middlebury College. The program is what we would call “total immersion.” I signed up.
The summer program of the Middlebury Language Schools involves not just Hebrew, but Spanish, Portuguese, French, Chinese, Arabic, etc. After a two-day orientation we took a language pledge to speak, listen to, read, write, and see only the target language (in my case, Hebrew). I should mention that this program includes students who are at ground zero, that is, they don’t know any Hebrew at all.
There’s a separate dorm for each language, a dining hall with set hours for lunch and dinner for each language. No “commingling” allowed. Students can’t even talk in a third language to someone in another language school. I played a lot of tennis in Hebrew. For three weeks I spoke nothing but Hebrew. I don’t have a large vocabulary and don’t speak well, but people understood me. We gestured, acted out, searched for alternate words or phrases that we both knew. We all laughed a lot.
After three weeks, I’m finally not afraid to speak. I’ve actually started to think a little bit in Hebrew. I stopped at the Queensbury outlets on the drive home to look for a raincoat. I found myself formulating in Hebrew what I was going to say when I walked into Brooks Brothers. The previous night I felt mournful when I was released from my pledge to speak only Hebrew.
The language pledge is the key. Middlebury’s done it this way for many, many years, and it works. Nothing else has.
There was very little homework. The School of Hebrew emphasizes co-curricular activities, movies, sing-a-longs, sports, talks by faculty or staff, having a beer at The Grille in the Student Center, anything involving speaking and listening. They don’t want you sitting hour after hour in your room or in the library, alone with a book. They want you speaking and listening and enjoying. As one of the program directors said in a teleconference before our arrival, “Participate. Don’t worry about the homework. It’ll get done.”
Vardit Ringvald is the director of the School of Hebrew at Middlebury. She is the primary author of Brandeis Modern Hebrew, the leading survey text in the United States. Who taught the classes? Great teachers, every single one, many of them on the Brandeis Hebrew faculty. The faculty and bi-lingual staff lived with us, taught us, ate with us, played games with us, and came to our co-curricular activities, even when they weren’t the ones in charge of the activity.
Rarely did anyone correct our many mistakes. Why? Because the School of Hebrew at Middlebury sees a higher value than that we speak Hebrew perfectly from the get-go. What is this higher value? It is that we speak, period. Constant correction inhibits speaking. They opt instead for constant exposure in listening to others speak, and our own attempts to speak. All parents know that toddlers learn to speak this way.
So, yes, it’s Vermont for me next summer. Vermont, one of the best places in the world to learn Hebrew.