Learning the Language: Israel's Ulpanim

Learning the Language: Israel's Ulpanim


Learning the Language: Israel's Ulpanim

Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language... and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Genesis 11:6

Babel Undone

According to the Biblical story, when the generations following the Flood began building a tower to heaven, their arrogant venture was destroyed simply and utterly: Genesis relates that "The Lord confounded the language of all the earth [and] scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth."

When the Jewish people built their modern state millennia after the Tower of Babel was abandoned in linguistic confusion, they heeded the lesson of Genesis. A shared language was the cornerstone of nation-building. That this language be Hebrew was without question; Hebrew is an integral part of the heritage that lays at the foundation of the Jewish national renaissance. The problem was, however, that virtually no one spoke Hebrew in everyday life.

The ancient tongue of Jewish liturgy, philosophy and literature, Hebrew did not even exist as a modern spoken language until the 1880s, when it was revitalized and modernized by the scholar Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Today it is the language of government and commerce in Israel, the language used in newspapers and schools, at home and at work. A key instrument in this remarkable revival is the ulpan.




The Ulpan

The Hebrew word ulpan translates as teaching, instruction and studio. In fact, it is all of these.

The ulpan is a Hebrew language school that rapidly teaches adults basic Hebrew skills speaking, writing and comprehension along with the fundamentals of Israeli culture, history, geography and citizenship. Its primary purpose is to help newcomers be integrated as quickly and easily as possible into Israels social, cultural and economic life.

The first ulpan, Ulpan Etzion, opened in Jerusalem in 1949. Today there are 220 ulpanim nationwide teaching 27,000 students at 350 sites in cities, kibbutzim, factories, hospitals, army bases, universities, community centers and government offices. Ulpanim are administered by the Adult Education Division of Israels Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport.




Learning Language the Ulpan Way

Language learning in ulpan is a participation activity. Teaching is built around conversation. Students speak, practice and repeat, absorbing the rules of language as they go along. Vocabulary is acquired through demonstration, not translation and often in the form of idioms and expressions rather than as single words. Grammar is assimilated through intensive daily practice of language structures, not by rote.

Each chapter in the ulpan learning program is built around a practical situation riding a bus or a visit to the post office, a restaurant or the supermarket. Students make natural use of the language as they act out these situations in class, learning the relevant vocabulary, language structures and social behavior as they do so.

The overwhelming purpose of ulpan study is practical to help newcomers function in a Hebrew-speaking environment as quickly as possible. Thus the first lessons taught are the most useful rather than the easiest. Dialogue and conversational tactics are emphasized, and learning about what goes on in the country from Israeli newspapers, radio and TV is an important part of the learning program.

The Cultural Context

Hebrew is taught not only as a key to opening the gate into Israeli society, but also as a way of connecting with Jewish heritage. The language is presented as an integral part of the history and religious and cultural legacy of the Jewish people. Jewish festivals are celebrated in ulpan; classes are taken to Hebrew theater performances; and trips around the country are incorporated into the curriculum.

This strong cultural framework to language teaching has made the ulpan attractive to other nations attempting to revive the lost languages of their own cultures. Azerbaijan, Wales, Catalonia and New Zealand have all modeled their language instruction on the ulpan with the Welsh even retaining the name ulpan for their language schools.

Practicalities and Pedagogics

Since 1949, 1,220,000 persons have graduated from ulpanim.
Ulpan learning is intensive. The classic course runs for five months, with up to 28 hours instruction each week. Classes are generally limited to a maximum of 20 students, and are offered at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. Conversation, reading and writing are all equally emphasized.

Despite the warmth and apparent informality of the typical ulpan class, it is underpinned by a sturdy teaching philosophy that rests on three basic assumptions:

  • acquisition of a new language is a skill that requires acquiring new habits

  • new habits are acquired through intensive practice

  • the adult learner, in contrast to the child, must learn a new language gradually and in a consistent manner; vocabulary and especially language structures must be taught systematically and reinforced through drills

Beginners can expect to graduate ulpan with a basic vocabulary of 2,000 words which they can read, write and speak. Students starting on the intermediate and advanced levels will emerge equipped with more advanced language skills in which to express opinions and feelings, as well as with background in Israels history, geography, political structure and culture. Oral and written tests built into the study curriculum allow teachers to follow up on each student.

Variations on the Ulpan Theme

The resounding success of the ulpan approach as a linguistic and cultural entrypoint for newcomers has led to its expansion and adapation. The first ulpanim were residential. Today, students can choose between living in or living out. They also have a choice between the traditional ulpan or one of several types of specialized ulpanim. There are now special ulpanim for:

  • the elderly the so-called golden ulpanim
  • the hearing impaired and deaf
  • the sight impaired and blind
  • the mentally challenged

In addition, there are full-time ulpanim (First Home in the Homeland) and combined work-study programs (Kibbutz Work ulpan) on kibbutzim countrywide, for those who want to experience kibbutz; there are advanced-level ulpanim and ulpaniot (shorter ulpanim) for Hebrew-speakers who want to improve their command of the language; there are tailor-made ulpanim for those with professions requiring a specialized vocabulary (such as physicians, teachers and bookkeepers); and there are both residential and non-residential ulpan programs for non-Jewish ulpan graduates who want to convert to Judaism.

One ulpan that stands in a class of its own is Ulpan Akiva in Netanya. Its teaching program has a major additional agenda: it aims to bring Israeli Jews together with Diaspora Jews, and Jews from both these communities together with Israeli Arabs and Druze.

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