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Question of the week: What do you think of reading children’s Hebrew books in order to learn Hebrew?

Learning Hebrew through reading children’s books

This is a question that I’ve been asked before, and  I have given some thought to the matter.  In order to develop an opinion on the subject I went to children’s books and found the following:  The children’s books that I looked at are really sophisticated from the standpoint of Hebrew language skills.  True, they’re written for children to understand them, but they’re not written in simple Hebrew.  On the contrary they are full of “advanced” verb patterns and rarely used nouns.  I think this fundamentally reflects the way that adults speak with children.  Adults do on some level make appropriate to the children the language that they’re using to speak to them.  But, and it’s a big “but,” adults use the language that is convenient and comfortable for them to use, with the expectation that they will nonetheless be understood by the young ones.   Worst case scenario, they’ll repeat themselves, perhaps adding a word or two, even a sentence or two, of explanation.  In a written text that extra step, does not seem to happen.  Over years and endless repetition along side all the other learning that children are doing, they do learn to understand well what adults are saying.

Maybe it’ll be helpful for you for me to explain how I learn Hebrew with an adult beginner at his/her Hebrew studies.  Above all we learn systematically.  We start with the so-called “simple” verb patterns, and then gain a significant level of mastery of that pattern, before going on to learning the next pattern.  Our learning is always sequential, from easy to advanced.  No one that I have been exposed to writes or speaks Hebrew in that fashion.  For them everything in the language is fair game.  It is therefore virtually impossible to find a great children’s text to learn from.  I remember one student who said to me: “hey, I bought Harry Potter in Hebrew, in order to read it to improve my Hebrew.”  That is not a simple book to read in Hebrew, let alone to serve as a text from which I intend to learn Hebrew so as to improve my personal level of fluency in the language.

I do have an alternative suggestion.  Choose a text that has vowels, it could be a child’s book, and dedicate 20 minutes a day to working on understanding it based on the following approach.  First take one paragraph, and identify parts of speech, while literally writing into the text, each noun (N), verb (V), and adjective (Adj).  Sure there are more parts of speech than that, but ignore them for now.  Second, when it’s a noun, use a dictionary of any sort (old fashioned, online, doesn’t matter) and look it up.  Remember that first you have to decide what the singular form of the noun would be so as to use the dictionary accurately.  Third, if the word is a verb, for which you happen to know the pattern, say it out loud to yourself, every aspect of the verb that you’re familiar with.  That could mean it’s infinitive, the present, past, and future tenses.  If you happened to come across verbs of patterns that you don’t yet recognize, ignore them, they are “coming attractions.”  I’m well aware that using this approach, you may not understand every word of what you’re reading, and in fact you may not even understand the general idea. However by using this methodology you’ll certainly deepen your connection with Hebrew, and over a months time you’ll have advanced your level significantly.

So to summarize, I don’t really get too excited when a student happily approaches me to tell me that he has found a children’s book to read.  It’s much more important what methodology is he/she going to use to make the learning experience, meaningful and efficient.  Let’s be clear, we all know that all learning experiences were not created “equal.”  I suggest that hard work, extended over time, in relatively short sittings is the way to go.  As the famous verbiage goes….”no pain, no gain.”  Soon that pain will become pleasurable!

 

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