The Jewish world is at attention: antisemitism has reared its ugly head again, with blatant and often violent breaches of civil rights of Jews. Anti-Israel sentiment continues to grow at a fever pitch, and yet another wave of terrorist attacks threatens Israeli security. Unresolved, festering internal divisions have now engulfed the Jewish state in the deepest political crisis since its founding 75 years ago. Israelis are calling upon Jews around the world to speak out against the illiberalism of their current government. This is a pivotal moment for the Jewish people. Times of such distress require reassurance of one’s self-identity, of one’s bonds to community, and one’s place in the world. The revival of Hebrew helped fulfill these functions a century ago in the global lead-up to the Jewish people’s return to their ancestral homeland. Today, gaining proficiency in Modern Hebrew is primed to fulfill functions of communal reconnection and participation around the world.
Why does Hebrew have this power? Because language constitutes group identity. It is the key to confirming one’s sense of belonging, to understanding a group’s core values that span generations and circumstances, to fully participating in a group’s cultural and economic life, and to reaching out to and through conflict with other groups. When the Japanese economy became “#1” in the 1980s, the number of Japanese learners jumped. It continued to grow as the Japanese art forms of anime and manga began captivating American pop culture in the 1990s. The demand for Arabic language teaching showed unprecedented growth following the shocking terrorist attack of 9/11, which brought Americans a sense of direct conflict with the Arabic-speaking world. Increasing numbers of Korean language learners worldwide is linked to the current fascination with Korean K-dramas and K-pop music.
The challenge is that acquiring a new language takes time and resources. In particular, it requires quality teaching based on pedagogies with evidence of success. Unfortunately, Modern Hebrew has yet to be associated with broadly accepted principles for second language acquisition. It has recently begun making great strides in this direction, but it has a long way to go. Unlike most other languages, from French and Spanish, to Chinese and Arabic, the teaching of Hebrew, still, is rarely taught according to standards designed and evaluated by language teaching experts. It is no surprise that so many attempts to create Hebrew language competence in the diaspora have failed. What would it take to elevate the quality of Hebrew teaching such that new learners would, instead, be prepared to take advantage of its benefits – including the powerful bonds of identity as well as opportunities to participate in all that Hebrew carries about the Jewish people’s complex historical, cultural, religious, ethnic, linguistic, and political experience?
In fact, we do know what it takes to be successful. Evidence-based research shows that the best track record for achieving Hebrew language teaching excellence is the communicative style, a pedagogy that is encapsulated in the work of the “Brandeis Modern Hebrew” textbook and implemented through the summer immersion programs of the Middlebury Language Schools. The past two decades of this work have resulted in top-notch Hebrew educators who are already showing a distinctly positive impact on their students and communities.
The urgent question now is about scaling the success of the communicative pedagogy beyond the summer immersion environment. Is it possible to increase, dramatically, the numbers of excellent Hebrew educators available to serve the growing global community of interested learners? This will require re-imagining the proven pedagogy into new forms: those that can fit the traditional academic year calendar and be offered through multiple colleges and universities at once; and those that can serve as lifelong learning modules for non-academic institutions, like summer camps, career-focused internship cohorts, and community centers.
These are exactly the objectives that the newly formed Brandeis University Hebrew Consortium for the Teaching of Hebrew Language and Culture aims to fulfill. The Brandeis Hebrew Consortium is now working with academic partners who will begin integrating the communicative style pedagogies into their existing Hebrew language curricula. The Consortium is also working with non-academic organizations to offer their program participants access to communicative style pedagogies through online and in-person resources.
The Consortium will soon be announcing more detail about its efforts to dramatically increase access points to best-in-class Hebrew language education. We hope you will engage with us in this dynamic undertaking. You heard it here first: stay tuned.
Dr. Vardit Ringvald is Director, Brandeis University Consortium for the Teaching of Hebrew Language and Culture. Dr. Jessica Liebowitz is Chair of the Advisory Council, Brandeis University Consortium for the Teaching of Hebrew Language and Culture.
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