Second Thoughts: Educating in English – or Hebrew

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19 Jun 2008

Twice a week I have the privilege of meeting with two charming, intelligent, young Israeli females in my kitchen. The purpose of our meeting is to strengthen their English skills, hone their pronunciation so that it is comprehensible to English ears, and to socialize. The two young women are direct descendants, third generation – i.e. my granddaughters. Both are students in fifth grade and my heart goes out to the teacher who has to deal with thirty-five or forty balls of energy like these two on a daily basis. I find that after an hour, I am plumb done in!

Our meetings begin in the refrigerator. Since both girls come to me straight from school, and since it’s usually warm outside, they are in need of a little succor before they can get down to work. One young charmer (let’s call her Tami. They’d be embarrassed if I advertised their real names.) tosses her book bag on the floor, goes straight to the fridge and does a quick scan of the contents. If there’s nothing of interest to be found, she then proceeds to the food cabinets. Her cousin is a bit more reticent. (We’ll call her Shuli.) Instead of self service, she asks what I have to offer. After I water them down and get something into their stomachs, we are ready to proceed.

The only problem is that the two girls proceed in totally opposite fashions. Tami the Fridge Scanner learns via her ears. She can’t be bothered to figure out all of those squiggly English letters which never combine the same way, follow no rules and always produce different sounds. But she hears quickly and well. So well that she sees no need to read when she can speak (sort of) with so much more ease.

Shuli, on the other hand, despite a musical ear, doesn’t “hear” the various subtle differences between the vowels. She thinks that all English vowels sound the same. (The consonants are easier to fathom.) She somehow manages to transform English into a variant of Hebrew, thus reminding me of my east-European grandparents and other first generation immigrants straight off the boat at Ellis Island. (Voila! A native Israeli greenhorn!)

But both girls violently object to the English sound “ur” – as in girl, shirt, curb. Although extremely common in English, the ur-combination is non-existent in Hebrew and is inordinately difficult for Hebrew speakers to pronounce correctly. It helps when I tell them to imitate Americans speaking Hebrew (which they think sounds pretty funny).

Around ten minutes into our lesson, Tami is walking around the kitchen looking for something else to eat while Shuli is slumped so far down in her chair that I can barely see her nose which is deep into our colorful English book. Unlike her ever hungry cousin, Shuli likes to read, even if she can’t quite pronounce what she’s reading. And she reads well. The only problem is that it’s hard to understand what she’s saying. She sounds great, however, when singing. And sing we do.

I instinctively knew that we learn more easily through songs but I recently came across an article explaining that the musical part of our wondrous brains actually store information more effectively when accompanied by a melody. So I write reams of new words to old songs and listen as they sing their way to greater English horizons.

They are smart, charming, funny these two little girls and I love every minute with them, but giving each one what she needs, the way she needs it, is exhausting. I suggested that I meet separately with each girl but they wouldn’t hear of it. That would take all the fun out of the lesson. I mean, who would they giggle and argue with if they learned alone? So I plod along, trying hard to keep things enjoyable so that they’ll want to come back. After all, this is just a voluntary get-together with Bubby after school. They don’t need additional English lessons. They have enough English in school!

Besides leaving me tired, our weekly sessions leave me thinking. Each and every human being was put together differently. Each has his or her own strengths and weaknesses and pity the poor kid who gets stuck in a class, five to seven hours a day, where he or she is not given a chance to shine. I think I’d go mad. It’s a modern form of Chinese torture. Yet that is exactly what happens to far too many of our kids in our very competitive schools.

And so it is my solemn opinion that whenever possible, young students should learn singly or at most, in pairs, with a grandparent or other loving adult figure who doesn’t care too much how much they learn, but cares a lot about how they feel. Their job is to provide emotional satisfaction laced with love. The schools, on the other hand, should be teaching a no-nonsense curriculum based on T & H (Tefilla, Tanach and Halacha) plus the three R’s – (for those of you born after the three R’s went out of style, we’re referring to Reading, (w)Riting and ‘Rithmetic). And they should be teaching it in classes no larger than fifteen students each.

It seems to me that classes that size plus some additional after school hours of T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care) with an adult would guarantee that every child learned what he or she needs to learn and would pretty much eliminate drop outs from Torah, school, family or community. After all, you can’t function very well, or feel very good about yourself if either of these two components are missing – basic skills to make your way through life, and a good supply of love and self confidence.

Now go and tell that to your school board (and tuition committee) while I return to my kitchen and my granddaughters. In between Dirk the Dragon, songs Bubby makes up and chocolate chip cookies, we’re doing pretty well!

© 2008 Yaffa Ganz. Yaffa Ganz is the award winning author of more than forty Jewish juvenile titles including Sand and Stars – a 2000 year saga of Jewish history for teen readers. Her latest book – “A Different Dimension” published by Hamodia Publishers – is an anthology of essays on contemporary Jewish life.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.