A Hebrew Lesson (Plan)
Ofir's Objective: To get my aunt to respond to what I want
Ofir sat on a couch at a family dinner. She told her cousin, “My aunt speaks Hebrew.” Ofir turned to me. “Doda, say the word for grandmother.”
“Savta,” I replied.
Ofir turned to her friend with a triumphant look. Then to me, “Say more words.”
“Shalom. Manishma.” I said. “Ken. Lo. Rega. Die. Mazei. Efa. Ani.” Mostly words based on children’s questions and/or willfulness. A reflection on my creative, free spirited niece.
“I’ll show you what the word is,” Ofir explained.
I’m paraphrasing because I only understood the hand motions. She raised her arms and moved them in a large circle that started at her head and ended at her hips.Then, she walked around the room. “Biat.”
“What?” With those hand movements and circular path, the word could be anything that encompasses something.
“Bite,” I repeated, and pleadingly stared at her mother.
“Home,” Ima prompted.
At the beginning of the trip, I was filled with hope that this approach could work. A week later, I still couldn’t remember with consistency the word for “heart” when Ofir made the shape with her fingers pressed together.
“I forgot,” I admitted.
“Lev.” Ofir was undaunted. So, we continued.
The next morning Ofir called me into her room. She was perched atop her Anna and Elsa sheets after brushing her teeth. The next step in the morning routine was to get dressed. At my mention of getting dressed, Ofir began to describe an item in detail. The words repeated over. “Badim.” Ofir motioned with force. “Salon.”
I waited patiently until she finished. I assumed what I was looking for was badim, but I didn’t know what that was. Salon mirrored Spanish vocabulary so I padded in thick socks over the chilled tile floor down the hall until I stood in the middle of the main room. My eyes strained for anything that was Ofir’s that didn’t live in that room. Not convinced but desperate I settled on the earmuffs she had left there last night. After all, even though she should be getting dressed, that didn’t mean she was going to actually do it. I returned with the earmuffs. She took them but shook her head and began to speak again. This time her hands very intentionally mimed shelves. “Badim. Badim.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what badim is, Ofir.”
Ofir exhaled sharply and thrust herself over the bed railing. She pounded her bare feet into the salon and retrieved a folded dress and tights on top of a dresser that held something different in every drawer, none of them clothes.
“Badim. Clothes?” I trailed after her, attempting to complete the vocabulary lesson. “Ofir, don’t you know the English word for clothes.” I poked my head into her parent’s room. “Does badim mean clothes or dress?”
“Clothes,” my brother responded. “What did she say?”
“Oh.” Maybe learning from a five year old wasn’t the most effective. Although, I was finding it more vocabulary rich than my previous Hebrew lessons with the family dog.
2. I had looked forward to read alouds, specifically bedtime stories. It was going to be the part I was good at.
“I want Doda Erin book me,” Ofir requested.
“Okay. I followed Ofir to her bed. We both climbed onto the mattress. She let her fingers slip over several bindings and covers. The first book was in English. Perfect.
“I want two books,” Ofir stated. Ofir removed a book in Hebrew, but she had two copies of the book. The other was in English.
“I love this book, but let me read this one. ” I chose the English version.
Ofir looked skeptical, but she let me open the book and begin to read. All went well until we reached the song at the end.
“I don’t know it.” I wondered if I could fake it.
Ofir said several sentences in Hebrew that led me to believe her mother sang the song. That meant that I couldn’t do it any justice, because Hebrew or not, mine would not be her mother’s song.
“Can I sing you something else? How about from Cinderella?”
Ofir cuddled into her pillow and relented.I breathed a sigh of relief that was to be short lived. Afterwards, she sat up straight.“I want three book.”She showed me the number three on her fingers.
I nodded. “Okay.”
She selected another book in Hebrew. There was no English equivalent.
“I can’t,” I said. “It’s Hebrew.”
Ofir opened to the first page and stated the title.She turned the next page and stared at me for words.
“I can’t. Ani lo dat. I don’t know.”
Ofir exhaled sharply and then assumed responsibility for the story. She began to narrate and then indicated for me to repeat the words. The first page had few so I managed. Similar sounds anyway. Then, the story and sentence length picked up. For a few pages, I waited until she finished and then said the first part I remembered, forcing her to prompt me for the rest. Finally, I acknowledged my inadequacy in the exercise but my ability to still please her as a reader. Ofir told the story using the pictures and I mumbled sounds just behind those that escaped her own. We finished.She smiled and finally snuggled in for the night.
On my first visits to Israel, I had relied a lot on road signs and food containers to practice letter and word recognition. That strategy had not changed. I stood in front of the open refrigerator door looking for cottage cheese to spread on my bagel. There were many soft cheeses in similar containers in my brother’s refrigerator. The saving grace is that in Hebrew, they say “cottage”. That meant I could look for the word. The ‘c’ was on my radar because it was the same letter in my last name. I was absolutely three years old again learning how to read.
“Ofir can’t read and she uses it,” my brother had instructed when he handed me the Apple TV remote.
It wasn’t much encouragement. Earlier in the week I had been watching Fuller House on Netflix. All of a sudden, it wasn’t appearing in the row of images. Could I search for it using Hebrew letters? “F” had always been one of the most difficult letters for me to remember. I knew I was successful because “Friends” came up for ‘f’ and then other shows followed. I stared at the TV for a long time, but letter by letter I was able to type the sounds for “fuller” into the search bar. Unfortunately when I reached the end of the word, the show was absent. “Maybe,” I thought, “it was called something else. That would change the letters completely.” No. Ofir was not a fluent reader, but she held an advantage over me. She at least knew the words to look for. I was reminded of a colleague’s words years ago in Guatemala, “You can’t read what you can’t say.”
During teacher education coursework, the reflection section of the lesson plan was always my least favorite. It seemed unnecessary, lip service even, and definitely tedious. However in this case, revisiting my own learning as a teacher of second languages is inevitable. If I had to learn a language again would I want to learn it like a child? The answer is “no”. My recent experiences remind me that piecemeal, word by word interactions and book pages are too slow. Learning like a child requires so much patience. They take in so much and miss so much until it all starts to fall into place like the “cubes” my sister in law, and English Language Learner, accidentally supplemented for “pieces”. Too much is lost. Too little is explained. But, if you ask me would I want to learn a language with a child? The answer is absolutely “yes”. Encouragement. Hope. And unwavering confidence in your ability to understand. Who would not want a teacher like Ofir?