As anyone who follows this blog can probably tell from the frequency with which I (Adam) post, things have gotten busier and busier.  Since January various activities have kept me on the go pretty much all the time, so the aim of this post is to quickly give an update on all that’s been keeping me so active, with a particular focus on ulpan.

To review, ulpan refers to Hebrew language classes that are offered here.  There are many different types of ulpans depending on style of instruction, focus, intensity, private, government supported, etc.  After looking around for a while at the different options, we decided to sign up for Ulpan La’Inyan, an ulpan run out of the AACI (Americans And Canadians in Israel).  Why this one?  Well, it was recommended by another mathematician that went there when he was a postdoc at Hebrew U.  Why did he recommend it?  For the same reasons that I would recommend it: it’s affordable, it’s flexible, the instructors are friendly and gentle with the students and it’s effective.

Before coming here, I heard many praises about ulpan and how successful it is at getting people to speak Hebrew.  The thing is that whenever I asked about it, I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer as to what makes it so successful or what the classes are like.  Having gone through an ulpan course, I can now tell you what the class that I took was like and why I think they are so successful.  Remember, however, that as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the reason that I couldn’t get a simple answer as to what the classes are like is because there is a large amount of variation from one ulpan course to another.  Thus one piece of advice for people interested in taking ulpan is to search out the course that best matches your goals and style of learning.

Okay, now onto how Ulpan La’Inyan runs their courses.  Most of their courses run four days a week for about one and a half or two hours per day.  Their focus is on conversation, getting people talking as quickly as possible, so there are only a few exercises involving reading and writing.  This was perfect for me because that’s what I want to be able to do and I could go to class in the morning and then still get my work done.  Their style of teaching follows what they called the Pinzur method for language acquisition.  Basically each lesson consisted of a lot of listening and responding to the instructor’s prompts which were based on breaking down a particular conversation.  For example, the teacher would play a short (about 30 second) recorded conversation for us that would include about 10 new words or phrases that are commonly used.  The conversations focused on one hypothetical family’s move to Israel and their adventures with furnishing an apartment, going to the doctor, getting a driver’s license, looking for a job and so on.  After listening to the conversation, we would methodically analyze each line of the conversation.

As a made up example of the type of analysis that we’d do, let’s pretend that they’re trying to teach the future imperative which was introduced at the end of the previous class with the verb לכתוב (to write).  The background to the conversation is as follows: Allison can’t reach a plate that was placed on a high shelf, so she turns to Adam for some help.  (The new word in this setup is לעזור which means, to help.)  Prior to going over the first line of the conversation, the instructor would elicit prior knowledge by asking how to say, “to write.”  Then he/she would ask how we would tell a man to write something (we would respond תכתוב), then we’d go over the other conjugations in a similar manner.  Finally, we would turn to the conversation.  Suppose the first line is…

Allison says to Adam: תעזור לי לקחת את הצלחת הזאת

The teacher would then ask, which word means help?  Since we would presumably know the other words, we could figure out that תעזור means help.  Then the instructor would ask, and what if Adam is speaking to Allison?  How would he say this?  Using our previously prompted conjugations for “to write,” we would work out out how to change the sentence appropriately.

So after this experience, I’ve come to conclude that the real success to ulpan is that it forces the learner to spend several hours a day grappling with the language.  What a shock!  Immersion and practice help one master a language.  In other words, just by spending time working with the language, you’re going to learn.  The question is, will that time with the language be enjoyable or will it be torture.  And that’s a question that depends on each individual’s personality.

Anyway, other things that kept me busy (as Alli chronicled) were a visit from my Dad, learning to read megillat Esther, running (I ran in the Jerusalem 10k), a couple Fulbright programs, Passover preparations and, oh yeah, math, lots and lots of math.  As much as taking ulpan was great and helped me meet new people, when it was over, I was happy to be able to focus more of my mental energy back on math.  Now that I’ve had a break of about 6 weeks, I’m starting to feel an itch to push forward again with learning Hebrew.  Speaking of which, just before Passover, the person who runs Ulpan La’Inyan introduced me to a really nice guy named Matan who wants to do an informal language swap – we speak for half an hour in English and then half an hour in Hebrew.  We’ll see how that goes.  Hope to blog again soon…


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