Fighting The Decline of Hebrew Language Study

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In this blog post, we interviewed Dr. Vardit Ringvald who is the director of the School of Hebrew at Middlebury about the steady decline of students enrolling in higher education Hebrew language courses. Vardit was appointed the first director of the Middlebury School of Hebrew in 2008. She served as professor of Hebrew and director of the Hebrew and Arabic Languages Program at Brandeis University until 2013.

Language surveys from 2016 indicate that college enrollment in Modern Hebrew continues to decline. There are no hard indicators that point to a specific cause, but in your opinion, what are the three biggest factors responsible for college students opting out of Hebrew or not continuing on to advanced level classes?

In my opinion, this phenomenon which is true for many other languages as well is a result of both the impact of globalization and of the new technological inventions that we experienced in the last decade. Let me explain. The field of second language acquisition identifies two main reasons for studying a new language. The first has to do with the need to have the ability to perform “transactional use” – in the target language which allows learners to “survive” in an environment in which the target language is the language of communication. In that case, they can ask for directions, buy things in stores, and ask for assistance. The second motivation to study a new language is for the sake of “integration” in which learners use it to integrate and participate in a deeper level in the life of the community that uses the target as their native tongue.

In the past, institutions of higher education used to require knowledge of a new language at the level of the transactional model as a way to introduce learners to a new culture and such a requirement lost its relevancy in our current global world in which all of us have access to new culture and information via technology. This technology can also do all the transactional needs in a target language without learning it – different apps can translate greetings, questions, requests, and all in real-time.

Another factor to consider is the widespread use of English overseas. This is especially true with Israel. It is a well-known fact that visitors, professionals, and foreign students do not need to know Hebrew in order to “survive” in their daily life in Israel. Israelis prefer to speak English with foreigners – even with those who can speak Hebrew.
However it is also true that in order to integrate and take part in the life of native Israelis, learners need to have a very high level of Hebrew (at least at the advanced- mid-level – according to the ACTFL guidelines).

For this to happen they need to study at least between 600 -700 hours and have resources available for them to support them in this process such as professional teachers, well designed and cohesive programs and appropriate curriculum that can support learners. This new reality requires institutions of higher education to shift their focus and their resources. Institutions need to hire teachers who are experts in teaching Hebrew as a second language, build robust programs, and create a support system for all learners. Moreover, institutions need to move away from offering limited and sporadic courses that cannot support the learners in becoming proficient in Hebrew.

Those who actually still study the language are a small group of students who see it as part of their identity, whether they are true beginners or already have a background in the language or those which the university required them to study it in order to fulfill the university general or major requirements. And therefore, in my opinion, the decline will continue until these institutions shift their approach.

In contrast to the near-uniform adoption of the Al Kitaab curriculum for Arabic in the US and abroad, there doesn’t seem to be a uniform and accepted standard curriculum for teaching Hebrew. Universities in the US and in Israel rely on a number of different Hebrew textbooks and resources. For better or for worse, Al Kitaab does present a unified front in higher education Arabic instruction. Does Hebrew need to move in this direction? Why or Why Not?

In order for language learning and language acquisition to be effective, it should make it learner-centered – which means that teachers and institutions need to take into consideration the learner’s variables related to their way of learning and their needs. Such an approach requires the learning materials to be used as a mechanism to support learners’ acquisition process. This is why I do not believe that one textbook or one type of curriculum can serve all learners. What I do believe is that textbooks and curriculum should be relevant and take into consideration languages’ acquisition processes.

How has Middlebury designed its Hebrew program to help learners achieve their goals?

At Middlebury, we realize that we need to make sure that we can offer an inclusive environment in which a learner can achieve his / her goals. Therefore we have different tracks with different foci and program lengths. We offer a seven-week program and a 3-week program, each with its own curriculum. To make sure that each part supports the goals of the program we allow faculty to specialize in one or two areas of teaching (content, skills ) and we create a support system to individualize the learning process for those who need it.

Middlebury’s language immersion policy no doubt deepens a student’s commitment and connection to the language. How can other students/institutions attempt to replicate that level of commitment and connection without having the advantage of Middlebury’s total language immersion policy?

Commitment to study a new language in higher education depends solely on the institution’s mission. Many academic institutions aspire to equip the students with tools for the real world. Students will commit to a new language only when it encompasses this goal. Commitment to study a new language is a result of the understanding that it is important to be able to communicate at a deeper level with users of the target language. Until that happens this commitment will stay only with those who understand it on their own and willing to come and spend 7 weeks with us at Middlebury and to be totally immersed in it .

How important is it for the survival of higher education Hebrew to supplement traditional textbooks with language learning technology / online-real world materials if not eventually discarding textbooks altogether?

Very important! If indeed we are now on an area in which second language learning is about being able to integrate and participate in the life of the language users, learning materials should not only support the acquisition processes but also be authentic and real. Otherwise, students will not be able to function in real-life settings. We actually need to redefine the whole notion of “textbook” to make it dynamic, digital, and relevant.

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