I came on Aliyah from New York as a child with my parents in 1969. Besides having trouble with plural, possessives and gender agreement, my throat hurt from trying to emulate the rolling "r"s used by sabras.
"Don't worry about how you sound" was my mother's advice. She had heard a political talk in Hebrew on the radio, by someone whose masculine sounding voice spoke with a heavy American accent, including very flat "r"s. After the speech, the announcer said: "You have just heard Golda Meir speak." My mother suggested: "Listen to how she speaks. She's prime minister of Israel and her Hebrew sounds so American." From then on, freed from feelings of an inadequate accent, my Hebrew quickly improved and flowed unhampered.
The younger the oleh is upon arrival, the easier it is to acquire fluency in the language. The child quickly picks up vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and appropriate style from exposure to friends, teachers and television.
David Martin came on Aliyah in 1970 with his family at the age of ten. It was the middle of the school term. In a Jewish day school in Manhattan, he had learned Hebrew for the purpose of prayer and studying Bible. These classes were taught by Israeli teachers, so David had an auditory base of what Hebrew in Israel sounds like.
In Israel, David attended a Jerusalem school which provided him with Ulpan classes, where he was the only student. The fact that he had mainly Israeli classmates with a sprinkling of veteran olim induced him to speak Hebrew and gain confidence. Shortly after arriving, he had no trace of an American accent. "Throughout my schooling, my friends were all native Israelis. People were always surprised to find out that I was an American," he recalls. At home, he would speak English only with his parents, while among his siblings Hebrew was spoken.
While David had mastered basic vocabulary, learning school subjects like geography and history in a new language posed a challenge. "I had to contend with a new language and sometimes difficult subject matter at the same time." Tutors helped him in schoolwork.
David recommends that when parents consider Aliyah, they should realize that it's easier to come when the children are young. This helps with language learning, adjusting socially and studies. "In high school the student has to deal with a harder curriculum. Together with mastering a new language - this can be very difficult." Over thirty years later, all language skills are easier for David in Hebrew. He still uses English for counting.
Tzvi Melnick, a civil engineer, was 28 when he made Aliyah from Brazil twelve years ago. A native speaker of Portuguese, his level of Hebrew was minimal. The 5-month Ulpan in Jerusalem was very difficult for him, and he felt it did not help him enough for practical use.
Tzvi had a grasp of grammar from Ulpan. To improve his reading, he would read a newspaper with a dictionary, underline every new word and look it up. This helped him with his ability to read newspapers. However, he cannot write texts, even a letter. But initially, his main challenge was communication.
"When I was looking for work, I felt I couldn't present myself because of a lack of confidence in Hebrew. I also had difficulty in expressing professional terms in the construction field."
When he got his first job, he had minimal Hebrew. A further disadvantage in the construction field were the many Russian or Arab employees, limiting the amount of exposure to Hebrew. Part of his job involved giving control reports to another company. The manager spoke Spanish, a language that Tzvi had known from Brazil. While this might seem like a break, it prevented his using Hebrew.
Tzvi reached the conclusion that "speaking Hebrew is dependent on the effort you make. It's important to speak one on one". He married an Israeli and this gave him a push.
"I originally thought that after a year I would be fluent - and I was not," recalls Tzvi. "To think that you will succeed and you don't, can be frustrating. You need a few good years and personal effort to learn Hebrew." Tzvi recommends having realistic expectations and realizing that one won't be perfect.
Lisa Richlen, the web master of the WZO Hagshama web site is originally from Seattle, Washington and made Aliyah about three years ago. She had learned Hebrew on the one-year program for foreign students at Hebrew University about 7 years before her Aliyah. Upon Aliyah, she enrolled in two Ulpan programs.
"Some people have natural facilities for language, I didn't have such a knack," she says. Hebrew grammar was difficult, especially with the gender agreement and the conjugation of the verbs (binyanim). "I am not very good with details. In speaking I make many grammatical mistakes and I don't write in Hebrew."
With regard to speech, living in Jerusalem with its high percentage of English speakers hampers learning Hebrew. Lisa's acquaintances were mainly English speakers. The Israelis she met would reply to her in English. "At a certain point, I decided that I have to learn to speak Hebrew for my work as a facilitator. I took a course given only in Hebrew and was forced to use the language. It only improved when I started speaking the language."
Lisa speaks fluently and feels comfortable in the language, although an American accent is evident. "I'm a visual learner, not auditory. It was important for me to improve fluency in vocabulary and grammar, rather than focus on pronunciation. If you're not fluent, people don't give you credibility"
For practicing Hebrew, Lisa would meet with an Israeli every week. She would choose topics for discussion, or items to read, and get assistance from the Israeli, thus increasing her confidence. She also assisted the Israeli to practice English. Today, Lisa reads novels in Hebrew written by contemporary Israeli authors.
"Start speaking, as embarrassing as it is, just keep at it. Otherwise, if you're never forced to speak, by being surrounded by English speakers, you won't learn to speak. Once you reach a certain point that you can have a conversation, the ability to speak grows exponentially."
I've lived in Israel for a generation and have thought that there is little else for me to learn regarding Hebrew. Due to my teenaged children I've been exposed to two new experiences. The first experience is an introduction and explanation of the latest slang expressions (some culled from English).
The second novelty was that I only started reading Hebrew novels four years ago, when I had to buy classics for my children's literature classes. Until a few years ago, the only material that I had read in modern Hebrew were newspapers, information booklets, and cook books. I figured that the Hebrew classics purchased for my children would get more mileage if I read them also. And a by-product of reading has been interesting discussions with my teenagers - in Hebrew- about character development, theme and other literary nuggets.
Michelle made Aliyah from France in 1984. She also enjoys reading her daughter's novels in Hebrew. She had spent two years in Israel in 1976-77. The first year was a hachshara (training) program in a kibbutz. "Every day we learned a few hours in the ulpan and the rest of the day we would work in the kibbutz. I used Hebrew with the kibbutz members and with the family that adopted me for the year," recalls Michelle. The second year was spent in a study program, where Michelle learned Bible studies.
Michelle did not have any problems with Hebrew and enjoyed speaking the language. When she came to Israel, she was able to help her two young children adjust to first grade and to Torah classes. Michelle feels that "everyone who goes through a hachshara program should not have a problem with Hebrew when coming on Aliyah a few years later."
The French accent is evident in Michelle's speech. "French-speakers notice and immediately switch to French, and Israelis will ask me about the accent. I don't make an effort to change my accent."
What helps me now, when occasionally I am made aware of my American roots is the knowledge that most of my fellow Israelis were once olim or descendants of olim who persevered and mastered the language. And one of them with an American accent may even become Israeli prime minister one day.