Learning Hebrew

A visitor to Omniglot has contacted me on behalf of a relative who recently moved to Israel. The relative is finding Hebrew a very challenging language to learn and is looking for an alternative to Ulpan, the total immersion courses for immigrants to Israel. Any suggestions?

An article I found in The Jerusalem Post reports that 60% of immigrants to Israel who are over 30 finish their initial Ulpan courses consisting of 500 hours of instruction without fully mastering Hebrew. Many such immigrants are unable to find work, or have difficulties doing so. The article dates from 2006, and I haven’t been able to find any more recent ones on this problem.

Have any of you been through the Ulpan system, or something similar in other countries?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

0 Responses to Learning Hebrew

  1. Michael says:

    The 60% number means little to me without a comparison to immigrants over 30 in other countries. The “fully mastering” part is tricky as well.

    As anybody who frequents this website knows, learning a language requires a tremendous amount of work and determination. People who are also trying to support themselves and their families at the same time in an unfamiliar environment are at a particular disadvantage.

  2. aip says:

    I have been living in Israel for the last 3 years and I am quite familiar with the Hebrew courses taught in Ulpan. It is hard to say that this system is very inefficient, since it gives more or less decent results. The main requirement for success ,as was mentioned above, is hard work and strong willingness to LEARN. Unfortunatly, there is quite few individuals that can devote a lot of time and effort to studying. The problem is not really the lack of time, those people may and can invest in learning, but rather their reluctance towards that. As they arrive to the country they do not need to support themselves immediately , the government supports them in the initial period, and their goal is to get certain level of Hebrew at this time. Most of them do not succeed. Another problem with Ulpan is extremelt slow pace of learning, most people get bored in the very beginning and quit.
    Amusingly, according to my personal statistics, collected among my friends, those people who studied Hebrew in Ulpan have quite poor or no knowledge of Hebrew, those who studied by their own master it very well.
    It is hard to suggest anything to that person without knowing much the details. Quite a lot of general tips on learning any language could be found in the Internet. The only tip specific for Israel from my experience: at certain stage I improved my Hebrew skills quite a lot by watching TV. Surprisingly, almost all programs and movies in Hebrew are supplied with Hebrew subtitles, sometimes they are dubbed with English/Russian/Arabic and Hebrew subtitles.

  3. Jackson says:

    I’ve not been to an ulpan, but there is a fascinating documentary in English about the Ulpan experience entitled “A Hebrew Lesson” (Ha’Ulpan). It follows the diverse group of immigrant students in a 21st century Hebrew class, and their difficulties establishing themselves economically and socially in Israel. These challenges make it hard for some of them to maintain their Hebrew studies.

    On a related note, anyone who wants to learn Hebrew should take a look at the Hebrew-learning websites put out by Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin. They have a lot of material and can be very helpful.

    To add to the previous commenter, I noticed during my only visit to Israel that not only are most Hebrew TV programs subtitled in Hebrew, some are subtitled in Russian or English as well. (That is, there are TWO sets of subtitles, which is a real advantage to someone still learning to read the Hebrew script.)

  4. James P says:

    I learnt classical hebrew, and I have experienced life as an adult “immigrant” (though I am not staying here for ever, I had to learn spanish to the same level as if I were in order to work in it).

    immersion (radio, TV, read books from the very start, even if they are only The Cat in the Hat in the language).
    make mistakes
    make friends
    Do it.

    No short cuts, no tricks.

  5. Roy says:

    As an Israeli I do not know any other school or institution like the Ulpan for teaching Hebrew as a foreign language in Israel in such a systematic way. So I don’t think there is an alternative to it, unless you go private, but that would be very costy. (btw, the word ulpan comes from the Aramaic, meaning ‘classroom’, if I’m not mistaken. In modern Hebrew it also means a ‘broadcasting studio’).

    As for that article, one must be able to converse and understand Hebrew in at least a good level when they are qualified. There are several stages in the Ulpan, which means passing the final exam of the final stage qualifies you to be able to understand the language quite well. Maybe some do not reach the final stage and quit beforehand. Without any relevence to that it is not easy to find work in Israel even for native Israelis. Getting a job in Israel depends on many things (not necessarily qualifications and experience), so for foreigners that would be more difficult.

    Some commentators mentioned subtitles. Subtitles in Israeli TV can be in Hebrew, Russian and/or Arabic, depending on the programmes, the channels, the audiace, and the broadcasting times. In Israel we do not dub foreign programmes, unless they are made for children (like cartoons).

  6. jdotjdot89 says:

    I know a lot of people who have gone through the Ulpan system, and the key is–like any language program–you get out of it what you put into it. It cannot be expected that merely be going through the Ulpan system that you will just suddenly come out and *BANG* be fluent. That being said, for those who put in the work, you do get great results. Fluency in any foreign language, especially when getting older, is harder, but it is achieved. The thing about Hebrew in particular versus in English in Israel is that so much of the population is fluent in English that it is often possible to get by just with English, meaning that Israelis will speak to you English rather than Hebrew if you have any sort of accent at all in your Hebrew. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

    But back to Ulpan. I know of no other national language-learning system like Ulpan, and I do happen to think it’s an excellent resource for immigrants. It’s not perfect, but I think the difficulties that people have with it are just general language-learning difficulties, not anything unique to Ulpan.

    Remember–Ulpan is meant to give you the tools to achieve fluency. That’s the key thing to keep in mind.


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