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Ivrit, By Chaim Heller, Head of School

Chaim final constant contactDear Friends,

I’d like to address one of the most frequently asked questions by parents at SDJA: “When will my child be fluent in Hebrew?”

There are many variables to consider when discussing any individual child:

  • Do the parents speak Hebrew to the child?
  • Do the parents speak Hebrew at home in general, and/or go to Israel and spend time with family?
  • Is the child already bilingual (Spanish/English, Russian/English, etc) when entering SDJA?

So, let’s talk in generalities, backed up by many years in the field and what I/we know from research into Jewish day schools.

SDJA is a pluralistic community school where roughly 28% of our program is Hebrew and Judaic studies, with 60% of that instruction being in Hebrew. In a typical class of students at the end of 8th grade, 40% will be able to test out of 3 years of high school Hebrew, 30% will test out of 2 years of high school Hebrew and 30% will enter high school needing to take Hebrew 1.

In a typical class of graduating high school seniors who have been studying Hebrew at SDJA for 10 years or more, 33% will test out of at least two years of Hebrew in college, and will be on the cusp of fluency. That means that those students can spend one summer in Israel in an immersive Hebrew language environment and then be able to communicate easily – in writing as well as in conversation – with peers their age. They will not have the same richness of vocabulary as their peers, of course, but their syntax and language usage will be generally accurate and correct. They will “think” in Hebrew and not translate English thoughts into Hebrew words.

Typically, another third will be able to read basic Hebrew texts with accuracy and understand much of what they read. They will have a good core vocabulary but will be hesitant to use it. These students will engage with a prayer book or other sacred texts and be literate and capable.

One third of our students will struggle and will likely not continue Hebrew through their senior year. Its not all that surprising. Hebrew is one of the three most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. (Arabic and Chinese are the other two). Spanish is the easiest language for English speaking Americans to learn (no surprise there.) We often (but not always) see a correlation between students struggling in math and in Hebrew. Students with learning needs will often see those issues manifest in second language acquisition, regardless of the actual language. Also, the right-to-left pattern of Hebrew is harder to pick up, and the lack of reinforcement in other areas or at home make it even more likely that a child will struggle.

And yet, we see fully one third of our students, with non-Hebrew speaking parents, learn Hebrew so successfully that, given a six-week experience in an immersive monolingual setting (Israel in other words) they will be reasonably fluent. Considering the difficulty of Hebrew as a language and the lack of reinforcement of Hebrew in the dominant American culture, I’d say our students do very, very well.

You’ve likely noticed that we have increased our Hebrew usage at school through Hebrew immersion programs such as the Israeli Restaurant program, Israeli music playing in the MUS quad, and events such as last week’s Hebrew-rich Israel Week.

That said, we have begun to review our Hebrew programming to see if we can up the percentages and have that many more students excel in this beautiful, rich, and not-so-easy-to-learn language of ours, Ivrit.

Shabbat shalom,


P.S. See you at the Soiree! Seats are going fast, don’t forget to sign up today.

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