Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Spoonfeeding vs. Cramming

This morning we had our test at the Ulpan, to mark the end of the session. It was a fair review of what we had covered in class, and while not particularly difficult it made me realize that I've absorbed and/or recovered a lot of Hebrew since arriving here, whether I enjoyed it or not. Had I taken this test on the first day I probably would not have been able to answer a single question correctly, let alone understand them. Nonetheless, I'm leaving without a feeling of accomplishment or a sense that I've been challenged, and with a slight feeling of having been misled.

My previous experiences with foreign language learning were akin to "cramming," where I took in a lot of information in a short amount of time, my adrenaline level was high, and progress was palpable. It did help in these instances that classes were small and the students were of more homogeneous backgrounds. I can vividly recall one of my Hungarian teachers, Katalin Szili, a woman proud of her language who expected enormous dedication from her students. She conducted her classes as she might an academic seminar - all business with no tolerance for slackers.

I had chosen Ulpan Akiva for its reputation as the "best" Ulpan in the country, for all the resources it ostensibly offered, and for - I imagined - a highly motivated student body. Perhaps it was bad luck, or the fact that I started out in an inappropriately low class and it took some time to correct, but I found that the teachers here favored the "spoon feeding" approach to language learning: painstakingly introducing new vocabulary or grammar, then using the words in a text, then repeating the text, then having everyone (12-16 people) read an example....and then assigning formulaic homework that didn't facilitate the integration of new information. This possibly might be the best way to teach Hebrew to adult learners from a smorgasbord of countries and backgrounds, but the somnambulist pacing didn't suit me and the lackadaisacal attitude of an astonishing number of students was, ultimately, a downer.

Also discouraging was the infrequency of conversation classes, which at times were canceled because either other students or the teacher did not show up. The language lab, advertised on the Ulpan's website, and which seemed to justify part of the high tuition, was open a paltry four hours a week and was often closed during stated hours because the staff person had an exam. Just as the buildings here have been coated with umpteen layers of paint, I could whitewash my experiences and splash some soft words onto the screen, but my disappointment was intense. After awhile I stopped trying to get the Ulpan administration to live up to its promises, an endeavor which required more mental and emotional energy than the study of Hebrew itself and, instead, invested my time into planning trips.

I'll be spending the next few weeks in Jerusalem, trying to cram in as much fun and Hebrew as possible.

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