by Vale Levin, originally written in Spanish –
My first exposure to Hebrew was when I was eighteen years old, at camp, around a bonfire, when everyone was singing a song that was some sort of word game using onomatopoeias and
Hebrew words. The chorus sung by the crowd went something along the lines of “Ivrit, ivrit, ivrit, daber ivrit.” It was fascinating to me, how people sang and enjoyed themselves, laughing as kids snuck in phrases that most already knew but still found amusing. When I returned from camp, I told my parents about my experience and asked them why everyone else spoke Hebrew while I didn’t. My father told me that when I was little and they had to analyze educational proposals for different schools my mother wanted me to go where I would learn Hebrew, but my father considered learning English to be more important. Spoiler: The foundation that school gave me was so excellent that it instilled a lifelong fascination for English that even led to me becoming an English teacher. will always be left to wonder what would have happened if the language I had learned in school had been Hebrew, but we’ll never know the answer to this question. It was then that I realized that, on a linguistic level, I was truly several steps behind my friends at camp. Yet, being an outsider, I could not help but observe the passion with which these friends sang those songs they had been learning since kindergarten. None of the tunes they sang were new or modern, yet their enthusiasm for them were still fully intact.
Throughout my teaching career, I was never able to generate such homogenous enthusiasm among my students using worksheets, articles or exercises, short or long. There was something else that I saw that did manage to attract their enthusiasm, attention and emotions: songs, movies, and games. Obviously, these forms of media still attracted complaints, like when the movie was too romantic, the song too slow or the game seemingly impossible to win. However, there came times when everyone, absolutely everyone, was connected to the activity. This always made me think that there was something about these visual stimuli that seems more attractive than a sheet of paper. It took me years to realize that a piece of paper could be as attractive as a screen, the only difference was in how attractive or intriguing it seemed when introduced, or the emotions that it generated. In both the games and the song, and in the movies, there was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy invested in winning or experiencing something that amazed the eyes or ears. Above all else, there was the experience of going through it with the collective group. It created both identification and separation, for if a student was absent during a movie day they would know that they missed something the rest of the group shared and would never be able to recover that experience. For myself, my being left out of Hebrew was similar to my experience with The Simpsons. I have never seen an entire episode of the Simpsons, and in every sphere, social, professional, and personal, I was left out of any jokes linked to an episode of the show. With Hebrew, many times in my life I was left out of the conversation for not having met the teacher (or morah) or understanding the words of an Israeli Summer hit that came to my country to be danced, not by rhythm only, but with a feeling of belonging that those who understood the lyrics.
I realized, at a later age, that we all have challenges when it comes to learning languages. There is no such thing as a perfect polyglot because not all languages evok the same emotions. Also, through unscientific research among my friends, I came to understand that the more pleasant and enjoyable Hebrew learning experiences came in educational spaces. The more exposure to Hebrew learning they had, the greater their sentimental attachment with the language, regardless of what grades they achieved. A visual or auditory stimulus can be effective to the extent that it is able to capture the learner’s attention, but only to the extent that it is transmitted with a love and passion that can unite the learners. Our students will never learn something that we ourselves hate, because it is clear that we lack passion for our own lesson. On the other hand, they will always learn when the experience generates good memories, because those emotions are also transmitted, either explicitly or ephemerally, neither less perceptible. As it says in the song Hava Nagilla, whose current lyrics were likely composed in 1918 in celebration of the British victory in Palestine during WWI, we must rejoice, sing, and be happy. Who couldn’t enjoy that?