Our Common Language

By Gavriel Aryeh Sanders

Accessing Your Inner LAD

Linguists inform us that young children are endowed with a unique, albeit temporary, aptitude for language acquisition. First articulated by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, this hypothetical construct is labeled a “language acquisition device” (LAD). Preschoolers can sort out two, three, even four languages just by interacting with native speakers. This explains why some little children in our communities may demonstrate a facility in Spanish, Polish, or Russian, depending on the language of the nanny or household help. This LAD persists well into the teen years and drops off around the age of 17, though there are exceptions.

The existence of the LAD, even if a theoretical notion, challenges much of our conventional timing and approach to teaching languages in secondary schools. That said, kudos to the schools and day-care centers that dedicate time to teach children at earlier ages. When we say “teach,” we’re not talking about the all-too-common (and boring) grammar-translation method; we’re talking about developing verbal and core literacy skills without metalanguage (language about language, i.e., nouns, verbs, gerunds, adjectives, adverbs, infinitives, etc.).

There are workarounds for learning a second language after the vitality of the LAD has waned. The Hebrew ulpan six-month immersion course I mentioned in my previous article is one such method. But how many of us can take six months off to go do that?

למזלנו (l’mazaleynu, to our good fortune), there are many resources available now online to simulate natural use of Hebrew. One such program is eteacherhebrew.com. Using a computer, you join a small class of four or five other learners from around the country or around the world. A native speaker guides you through eight levels of meaningful, interactive learning. The program developers have crafted online classes for children as well. It is a useful remediation resource for secondary-school students who may need an extra boost of confidence and controlled experience from the comfort of home.

Ulpan.com offers courses both in Israel and one-on-one via Skype. The online program costs less, roughly $40 per hour.

Berlitz, Pimsleur, and Rosetta Stone are great at marketing. However, they are not sufficiently interactive. You’ll spend a lot of money for something that will gather dust on your shelf or in the car. Put your shekels into a real interactive course. You need the appropriate pressure of immediate production.

Another fun way to trick the tired LAD back into motion is through associative learning. It doesn’t work for everything, but it may work for 20% of your vocabulary, giving you a nice head start. The basic idea is to go from the known to the unknown and anchor the new information using a familiar reference point. We tried this recently in my 10th-grade Hebrew classes–and those words are still active with the students. Also, they learned them in seconds without any notes.

Let’s walk through a few examples: A מָטוֹס (plane) is an easy one. Imagine a mother going to JFK and tossing a plane. “Ma—toss.” Another student linked the word to the biological term “mitosis”; another said, “My toes are on the plane.” Using those exaggerated visuals, you’ll remember this word long after this article has faded.

Another is a term we are learning this week: תַפְקִיד (tafkeed/role, function). Since we are learning vocabulary related to the theater, it’s easy to link this Hebrew word to the idea of “playing the role of a tough kid.” Try remembering this a month from now. You likely will. And from תַפְקִיד you can work on cognate forms such as to function לְתַפְקֵד (l’tafked), פָּקִיד (pakeed/clerk) and the famous phrase of Moshe Rabbeinu, who came saying “פקוד פקדתי” (I have surely remembered).

Here’s a hard-to-forget image: Imagine a mother putting a rock in her child’s soup: מָרָקma-rock. One of my students associated Moroccan soup as a memory aid. The concept doesn’t have to be exact to be memorable. It’s only a temporary step. But as I think you’ll conclude, it’s fast and nearly effortless. All you are doing is linking the known to the unknown.

Another macro-method for learning and retaining Hebrew is to learn songs. There’s something innate about melody that anchors itself in long-term memory. Through the years, I focused on the popular Israeli children’s album called The Sixteenth Lamb / הכבש השישה עשר. It’s loaded with simple songs, useful vocabulary, and very insightful grammar, such as the clever story about the Green Man, האיש הירוק (ha’ish ha’yarok), which gives many good examples of noun—adjective agreement. For music lovers, HebrewSongs.com has hundreds of popular songs, some of them with the accompanying music.

Unlike in years past, nearly every radio station in Israel is now as close as one’s digital device. From divrei Torah to the latest news to social, economic, and literary commentary, there’s never been a better time to just listen and learn. Listening to the radio, you can’t help but notice the numerous loan words that have crept into daily use from English. Hebrew lexicographer Reuven Alcalay registered many of them in his well-known Complete English-Hebrew Dictionary. (Look for the telltale little circle to the right of the Hebrew dictionary entry. By skimming through the Alcalay dictionary, you can harvest such widely used words, such as אירוני, אבסורדי, דרמטי, אלטרנטיבי (ironic, absurd, dramatic, alternative). These loan words are like fingernails on a chalkboard to linguistic purists from the Hebrew Language Academy. But such is the dynamic of a living and globally connected language.

Linguists refer to “just listening” as putting words into the passive pool. Imagine the language sector of your brain being like the Panama Canal. Words migrate through at least four locks from the passive side (let’s call that the Pacific side) to the Atlantic (the active side). Lock #1 is “I don’t know this word.” Lock #2 is “I’ve heard this word before but don’t recall what it means.” Lock #3 is “I’ve heard this word before and it means _________.” Lock #4 is “I really know this word and can use it whenever needed.” In sociolinguistic terms, that process towards fluency with each discrete lexical item is (1) I don’t know that I don’t know. (The word is outside my experience.) Following that is the realm of (2) I know that I don’t know. Next is (3) I know that I know. Finally, reaching the level of unconscious competence, a language learner achieves (4) I don’t know that I know. The last stage is like tying shoes, riding a bike, driving a car, and any other activity that we can execute without thinking. The good news is we have all learned a first language and some of us a second in varying degrees (along with shoe tying, bike riding and operating a car).

The payoff for making Hebrew one’s second language is substantial. Besides the benefits of taxi talk and other travel-related exchanges in Israel, there are certain seforim–Alei Shor by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a’h, being one good example–which are written primarily in the style of more recent Hebrew. The depth of Rav Wolbe’s words is more apparent in Hebrew. The Garden series by Rabbi Shalom Arush, and Rabbi Itamar Shwartz’s nine-volume Bilvavi series, are further compelling reasons for mastering contemporary Hebrew. I’ve compared the English translations with the Hebrew original and, as they say in the old country, אין מה להשוות (eyn mah l’hashvot/there’s no comparison).

There’s also something to be said for banishing the גָלוּת (galut/Diaspora) from one’s lip. Personally, I regard it as a preparatory exercise in אֱמוּנָה (emunah/faith), for when we’ll live together in a fully restored state of redemption. That said, נוּ, קְדִימָה — (nu- kadimah/forward already).

Gavriel Aryeh Sanders has spoken to tens of thousands of Jews across North America and abroad, delivering lively lectures related to Jewish living and learning. He spent ten years in marketing and PR with ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, working with many noted authors. He has produced popular radio programming on Five Towns Radio, the Talkline Communications Network, Israel National Radio, and the Nachum Segal Show. Email: GavrielSanders@gmail.com.


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