The Village Voice has an article on the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA), a public charter school in New York City:

Every bit of written instruction—from the alphabet to science—is explained from left to right in English, and then from right to left in Hebrew.
At this school, kindergartners, only six months after being introduced to the language, are comprehending and speaking Hebrew aloud.

As I think I’ve mentioned, I have a grandson in a similar school around here where half the classes are in Chinese, and I think such schools are a wonderful idea. The article has what seems to me an excessive emphasis on the race of the students (“55 percent of families identify their children as white, 38 percent as black, 6 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as multiracial”), but having spent twenty-three years in New York, I’m not surprised. Anyway, the school is a good thing, and I hope it thrives.


  1. I think the articles explains its focus on race well:
    ‘Here’s why that [the diversity of the student body] is so unusual in New York City: At “gifted” public schools, students are often nearly all white and Asian. At the city’s poorly performing public schools, students are usually all black and Latino. Even charter schools, of whatever quality, are 95 percent black or Latino.’

  2. What GF said. In fact, it can get worse than that, especially in elementary schools (which are zoned with little to no choice) – you find schools which aren’t just all-white, but all-Italian, not just 99% Hispanic but actually 99% Dominican.

  3. Oh, I know; I’m not saying it’s unimportant, I just wouldn’t have made it quite so much of a primary focus if I’d been writing the article. I’m glad they discussed it, and I’m glad the school is so thoroughly integrated.

  4. What should have been the focus/question of the article is whether the children will indeed end up mastering Hebrew. With few or no native speakers among their peers, I strongly suspect that as a rule, for those children unexposed to Hebrew outside school, the answer is that they will not. My guess is that *at best* they will develop a partial passive understanding of the language with highly limited, interlanguage- or pidgin-like production abilities.

  5. Your grandson’s school sounds like an elaborate plot to teach Americans to make tea.

  6. Etienne, don’t you imagine that some of them will move to Israel? If this includes African-American and Hispanic, then maybe we’ll get to see Lehava’s head asplode.

  7. whether the children will indeed end up mastering Hebrew
    I did.
    From Grade One through Grade Seven I went to a privately (i.e., community) owned Jewish school where half the day’s lessons were conducted in English — the Ontario curriculum — and half the day’s studies were conducted in Hebrew — a mix of language, bible, religion and Jewish history, the latter including much about Israel. I learned the Latin alphabet and the Hebrew alphabet simultaneously. Towards the end of Grade Four we also briefly dabbled in Yiddish and Aramaic. For five of those years I attended a Hebrew-speaking summer camp — volleyball, swimming and arts & crafts in Hebrew; get it? — an experience that no doubt added considerably to my Hebrew language skills.
    From Grade Eight I attended the regular public school system and essentially didn’t use Hebrew again until I spent a year on a kibbutz when I was nineteen. I discovered that the core of my Hebrew was intact. I spoke easily, if somewhat clumsily at first, and occasionally read and wrote.
    Returning to Canada, I didn’t use Hebrew for decades other than on a few brief visits to Israel or on the rare occasion when an Israeli relative came to town. Seventeen years ago I moved to Israel, took a short refresher course and worked hard, independently, at improving my reading and writing. For many years now I have functioned at a high level in business and academic meetings and in any social situation, though for efficiency prefer an English-language daily newspaper. (Hebrew is inherently hard to read because too many letters look similar to one another; as well, it never developed an upper and lower case.) I speak with a slight “Anglo-Saxon” accent, but am told that my grammar is excellent and my vocabulary uncommonly strong.
    Incidentally, HLA Principal Maureen Campbell is incorrect in saying that “Israel is the number one country represented on the NASDAQ.” For more than a decade and perhaps longer, Israel — including Israeli companies headquartered for tactical reasons in Delaware — had more companies listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market than any country save the U.S. and Canada. I discovered this factoid — much loved by the Israeli media and cause of my 15 nanoseconds of fame — while working on Nasdaq’s Israeli public relations team. Today China claims that position, a matter I researched out of curiosity a few months ago.

  8. Postscript: A half-century later, any of the chums from those days whom I occasionally run into speaks more than passable Hebrew. Their ability to read and write is weaker, in part because all our texts used diacritics, whereas everyday Hebrew does not.

  9. all our texts used diacritics
    That seems like a terrible idea; why not just get the kids used to reading normal Hebrew?

  10. why not just get the kids used to reading normal Hebrew?
    Because it’s really hard to do.
    Consider: rng th bll. Does it mean “ring the bell” or “rang the bell”? Or maybe it means “ring the ball.” Ditto with sng a sng: Does it mean “sing a song” or “sang a song”?
    I believe that Israeli public schools wean their charges off diacritics somewhere around Grade Four. At least those kids are exposed to all manner of Hebrew text in their daily lives. Once I left the classroom, I saw only English in my world. FYI, by convention, printed bibles, poetry and children’s books always use diacritics.
    You don’t want to know how long I spent figuring out ldsmbl. Hint: It’s a defunct American car brand. Or consider shmpnn. Hint: It’s a kind of mushroom. Okay, I know, these are foreign words, but you should be getting the drift.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, the school’s demographics presumably serve as a defense against certain sorts of political risks. One infers that many of the gentile parents who’ve sent their kids there are less motivated by the perceived abstract benefits of bilingual education (or an interest in Hebrew as compared to, e.g., Mandarin) but are instead dissatisfied upset with the perceived suckiness of the default Anglophone-instruction schools in their neighborhoods and view this school’s “gimmick” as a proxy for other desirable features and the Hebrew instruction as a reasonable price to pay for those desiderata.

  12. Paul Ogden: I had written that “for those children unexposed to Hebrew outside school” Hebrew would not be mastered. Your own experience involved a great deal of Hebrew use outside school, and thus does not strike me as a good counter-example, quite apart from the fact that I had also written “as a rule”.
    Hat: based of their claim that the children were reading Hebrew after six months’ exposure thereto, I had assumed that their texts too are fully vocalized: it is my understanding that it takes several years of schooling before even native Hebrew-speaking children can read normal (=unvocalized) Hebrew texts. And unless they move on from such texts to normal ones, I quite agree it’s a terrible idea: without exposure to such unvocalized texts adult levels of literacy will likely remain quite beyond their grasp.
    The whole thing is suspiciously reminescent of French immersion in anglo-Canada, which likewise involves grandiose claims about making students “fluent” in a second language, and which fails miserably at teaching most pupils anything more than an anglicized, pidgin-like French, which, beyond the most elementary phrases, is utterly incomprehensible to most native speakers. Considering that Hebrew differs from English considerably more than French does, and hence is more difficult to learn, I stand by my original statement: if the Hebrew these children are exposed to at school is their only input, I think most will never become genuinely fluent in the language.

  13. John Emerson says

    If students or their parents have the intention of getting additional input, however, the plan might work.
    As it is, neither American HS foreign language teaching nor American college foreign language teaching is at all successful, and it has been suggested that we just quit teaching them.

  14. John Emerson: you are assuming that adequate Hebrew fluency is a goal the parents wish for: but like J.W. Brewer I suspect the gentile parents (and perhaps some of the Jewish ones too) who send their children there do so out of a sense of dissatisfaction with mainstream schooling more than anything else. Hence they are unlikely in the extreme to supply more of a Hebrew-speaking environment to their children.
    But even if the parents wished their children to become fluent Hebrew speakers…is there ANY indication in this article that a school curriculum which is half in Hebrew would not be enough to make the children fluent? ANY indication that parents are clearly told just what the limits of their children’s “Hebrew fluency” will be?
    Moreover, what about English language literacy? The “academically disadvantaged” children are the ones I’d be especially fearful for: with limited exposure outside of school to standard English and none to Hebrew, they may well end up with inadequate reading/writing skills in any language.
    Again, Anglo-Canada’s experience with French immersion is suggestive: while there has been no serious research on the topic, there is some evidence indicating that French immersion students’ English is adversely affected over the course of their (very partial) acquisition of French. The bulk of Canadian immersion students being from upper- to middle-class families, I fear that disadvantaged children’s command of (standard written) English may be even more adversely affected by a similar school setting.
    It would have been nice if the reporter had asked a few such questions. Considering that the caption of a picture of the school is “public SHUL”, using a Yiddish word, I wonder if the reporter in question even knows that Hebrew and Yiddish are separate languages.

  15. neither American HS foreign language teaching nor American college foreign language teaching is at all successful
    JE, what do you base this (very strong) statement on?

  16. @Paul Ogden: Your examples are ridiculous. Hebrew writing, as you very well know, did not originate as an irregular hodgepodge of vowels and consonants with poor sound-letter correspondence (read: English spelling) and then have all the vowel-letters thoroughly and simultaneously removed. “Oldsmobile” is usually written “אולדסמוביל”, which any Hebrew-speaker can easily recognize as, at worst, “ul_d_s_muvil” (if they mis-guess both o’s as u’s and the b as a v). It’s a difficult word, because the natural assumption is that at least one of the _’s is a vowel, but nowhere near as hard as “ldsmbl” would be. Champignon is usually written “שמפיניון”, which isn’t even a difficult word IMHO; I suppose there’s a risk that the “שמ־” will be misread as a Yiddishism (“shmafinyon” or something), but I think “shampinyon” would be most people’s first guess, or at least second guess, even if they don’t already know the word.
    (Don’t get me wrong, I agree that Hebrew spelling is harder to read than English — for one thing, the homographs are hell — but examples like “ldsmbl” and “shmpnn” are deceiving your reader, not because those are loanwords, but because your representation of them is downright dishonest.)

  17. John Emerson says

    The best high schools may require 2-4 years of foreign language. Few colleges require more than one or two years of foreign language. Very few get a usable command of a language from that.

  18. Oh, I see. But whether to require it is a different question from whether to teach it at all.

  19. Etienne: I noted in my post that my experience at summer camp no doubt contributed to my abilities in Hebrew. I also noted in a postscript that when I occasionally encounter classmates from that period they invariably can speak Hebrew reasonably well.
    By way of comparison, French in those years was a mandatory subject for at least two and maybe three years in junior high and high school. I studied it for six years and with respect to my speaking abilities, let’s just say that it’s not likely I’d starve to death in France. Oddly, I can read French at a much higher level, probably because the label on every consumer product and every user manual in Canada, as well as every federal government form, is in both English and French.
    Ran: I chose Oldsmobile and champignon because I felt they serve as good examples for someone who doesn’t know the Hebrew alphabet. I did in fact stumble mightily over אולדסמוביל when I first encountered the word.

  20. John Emerson says

    If foreign languages were not required, almost no one would take them, either in HS or college.

  21. Paul Ogden: considering that much of the federal government’s “French” is actually a kind of Frenglish/translationese, I suspect you may be overestimating your reading knowledge of French. And please don’t believe that my criticism of French immersion implies that I approve of other methods: French language teaching, in anglo-Canada, is an unmitigated disaster.
    John Emerson: part of the problem with foreign language teaching in North America is that English monolinguslism is growing ever-more entrenched, even in areas where a reading knowledge (at least) of a foreign language might be expected (The Humanities, today, are an utter disgrace from that point of view: whereas a generation or two ago a historian or a philosopher would be expected to have a reading knowledge of French or German if not both, today such knowledge is the exception and not the rule), that I suspect students simply cannot see the point of learning something which most of their professors (the ones not teaching foreign languages, that is!) know nothing about.

  22. considering that much of the federal government’s “French” is actually a kind of Frenglish/translationese, I suspect you may be overestimating your reading knowledge of French
    Possibly, but my typical reference points are newspapers. I manage handily with Montreal’s La Presse, but find Devoir (is it still around?) and Le Monde difficult. I had no trouble with historical plaques, museum brochures and the like in France a few years ago.
    The real trouble with French immersion: They don’t keep them under long enough! 😉

  23. @John Emerson: I don’t know if you will be happy to hear this, or sad, but — neither my high school nor my college had a foreign language requirement, yet many students took them. (In high school I suppose many students took them in the hopes of looking good on college applications, so they were “required” in that sense, but even so, I doubt that very many students would have stuck with their languages for four years — as quite a few students did — if not for personal interest. Languages were many students’ favorite classes, and many stuck with them under the impression that four years of language classes do in fact leave students near-fluent. Whether or not that impression was accurate, students were motivated by it in the absence of explicit language requirements.)
    @Paul Ogden: Your comment doesn’t seem to be a reply to mine. “Oldsmobile” and “champignon” are fine examples, and I acknowledged that “Oldsmobile” is a difficult word; but “ldsmbl” and “shmpnn” are bad examples — dishonest examples — because they’re nowhere near as informative as the Hebrew spellings. It would be like telling a Hebrew-speaker that English writing is difficult because of the inconsistent sound-letter correspondences, and demonstrating by asking them to recognize “סהאן” as meaning “שין” (à la “sheen”) and “ינכה” as meaning “אינץ׳” (à la “inch”).

  24. Ran: Beyond attempting to show how Semitic triliteral roots work by playing with English strong verbs, I chose those examples because I felt they were appropriate. You are welcome to disagree.

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