Learning Hebrew 101 in Akko

29 Apr

by Sharleen Harty

Image courtesy of Sharleen Harty

Never before as a linguist have I had the opportunity to learn a language in the land in which it was born, died and then revived. Sixty-four years after Israel became an independent state, Hebrew is alive and well – much as it was during Biblical times.

During the first five months as new olim (immigrants) in Israel, most non-Hebrew speakers attend four hours each day of intensive (and free) Hebrew lessons at Ulpan. However, my twenty fellow students in the north of Israel were entirely Russian speakers (which is not unusual in the north apparently), and the teacher spoke very limited English – so at the end of each day I went home with more Russian than Hebrew!

I was confused on many levels by the daunting process of learning a new language and alphabet through a language I did not know. With various (free) computer programs I was able to: listen to a clearly articulated Hebrew audio track on-line (as opposed to my usual exposure to the dominant Russian heard in class); cultivate a more authentic Israeli (and less Russian- or English-sounding) Hebrew accent using transliteration and audio playbacks; learn the Hebrew alphabet, and build a small vocabulary that I could use through the daily words posted on Facebook – visit http://www.hebrewpod101.com/

The best classroom, however, is definitely stepping out and about in the sleepy, 6,000-year-old fishing village of Akko itself. I am learning Hebrew from each memorable encounter, much as a child learns his or her mother tongue until it becomes second nature. Another creative way to learn is to listen to Israeli musicians (my favourite is Idan Raichel), while following the written Hebrew transliteration and English words on-line. If only I could sing it would be an even more useful way to practice my Hebrew!

Also, the friendly Israelis and Russians in Akko all want to perfect their English so I am now trading Hebrew lessons for English lessons at the largely Russian community center where I live, and by appointment at the local Israeli high school. I may have found a new career as the sole, native-speaking English teacher in Akko. If more Anglos settle here I believe that we could easily start an English school – or at the very least a program in mime/charades for non-Hebrew speaking olim!

I stopped attending “Hebrew-Russian” Ulpan after one month and several migraines of being “Lost in Translation” (a must see movie for those who are experiencing the sensation of being lost in a new language, culture and environment). * However, I continue to learn as I set up a home in Akko, make friends, network and seek employment. Being creative with my Hebrew studies also allows me the freedom to prioritize my daytime activities, and study at night if necessary. I can even indulge my daytime passion for archaeological meandering and exploration in the old Crusader-now Arab city, followed by a daily swim at Akko’s country club.

According to http://www.aaci.org.il/ new olim have eighteen months in which to take advantage of free Ulpan lessons, so it remains an option if my adventure and experiment does not bear fruit within a year. Please watch this blog for updates, from an anthropological perspective, of a linguist in the culturally diverse, small coastal town of Akko – home to approximately fifty-six thousand Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Baha’is. If this method of learning Hebrew works, Arabic is next on my list… not to mention Russian.

* Two hilarious miscommunications during Ulpan: I thought I understood – to my horror – that a Russian student wanted to “drive drugs” in Israel (actually trucks) and that Israelis like to go to the store to buy “snakes” (actually snacks)…

Sharleen Harty is a olah chadasha, and a linguist, living in Akko. She can be contacted at sharpersona@aol.com

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