NEW YORK — Eight pairs of eyes are trained on their teacher as he throws the oversized cardboard cube imprinted with Hebrew letters onto the table. Hands shoot into the air as soon as it lands, and the sixth graders vie for a chance to answer the vocabulary question.
Welcome to intermediate Hebrew at Harlem Hebrew Academy, a bilingual secular charter school where children of all backgrounds are immersed in Modern Hebrew. Beyond offering K-8 pupils a dynamic education, the charter school might also play a vital role in curbing the decreasing number of students who enroll in Modern Hebrew in university.
The school’s goal? To reach students while they’re young so they continue to pursue Hebrew as they get older.
“We know if students leave us with a certain level of Hebrew they are more likely to retain some language and that makes it easier to come back to it and study,” said Valerie Khaytina, chief external officer for the nonprofit Hebrew Public, which manages Harlem Hebrew and 14 other such charter schools across the country.
According to a recent Modern Languages Association report, university enrollment in Modern Hebrew fell 17.6 percent between 2013 and 2016, while Biblical Hebrew dropped by 24%. The same period saw a 9% decline in foreign language enrollments overall.
“It breaks my heart to see these rates,” said Naomi Sokoloff, a professor of Hebrew in the Department of Near Eastern Language and Civilization and Comparative Literature, at the University of Washington.
“We have this language that was revitalized just about 100 years ago, and in that time there has been a boom in writing and literature and culture,” she said.
“Studying Hebrew is vital for Israel-American relations because students who take Hebrew immerse themselves in the culture and see what is dynamic and fun as opposed to only seeing the politics and social issues,” Sokoloff said.
Studying Hebrew, or any foreign language for that matter, offers many cognitive benefits — particularly when students start at an early age, Sokoloff said. And immersion schools such as Harlem Hebrew can help achieve that.
When students are so immersed in Hebrew for the majority of their elementary and secondary school education, it bodes well for a future return to structured study, even if there’s a hiatus, said Shiri Goren, the Modern Hebrew program director at Yale University.
Many of Goren’s students had studied Hebrew before coming to Yale, and a large number of those in the department did so on a daily basis through the ninth grade.
To help spark interest in college level Hebrew, Goren said it’s important that universities begin reaching out to potential students well before they begin their post-secondary education, through academic fairs and college fairs.
There are added benefits beyond Hebrew fluency: According to Sokoloff, learning the roots and connections between words and semantics in a foreign language can improve reading and writing in one’s native language. Moreover, she said, learning another language allows students to see people from other countries and cultures as human beings, and not as caricatures.
A dominant thread
At Harlem Hebrew charter school, Hebrew is woven into all subjects, save for English language arts. During lunch and recess it’s the primary language spoken.
“In order to learn a language you need to live in the language. At the very least these kids have a basis upon which they can build. They have a relationship to Israel and to the wider world,” Khaytina said, standing on the threshold of Harlem Hebrew’s gym.
Inside, banners of Israeli sports teams adorned the pale blue walls and sneakers screeched on the parquet floor. About three dozen 10-year-olds shouted and laughed. A gym teacher counted off in Hebrew and the students formed three neat lines, ready to return to their respective classrooms.
Part of the school’s mission is to help create global minded students such as Christian LaFontant, who said he will continue with foreign-language study in college.
Already fluent in French, Creole, and English, the 13-year-old is an eighth grader at the Hebrew Language Academy’s Brooklyn school.
Right now LaFontant enjoys teaching basic Hebrew words and phrases to his family. He’s also eagerly anticipating a school trip to Israel this spring with his classmates. Once there, he’ll get to use his Hebrew in a less structured setting than in the classroom, including while shopping in the shuk, or open-air bazaar.
While college might not be on the immediate horizon for LaFontant, he’s already thinking about whether he’ll study Hebrew when he gets there.
“It depends on how relevant it will stay for me. If I can keep applying what I’ve learned so far in college, then studying it there would sound like a good idea,” he said.
Khaytina, and other educators, are well-aware of students’ desire for language skills brought to a high enough level that they may be put into practical use throughout their lives. To accomplish this, schools such as Harlem Hebrew need to make the language “stick.”
One way to do that is through the school’s newly-launched alumni program, which aims to stay connected with students long after graduation.
Yair Weinstein, 12, who has two younger siblings at the school, will graduate Harlem Hebrew this spring. He plans to be one of the first students to participate in the alumni program, which will provide a way for him to give back to the community through volunteering while keeping him anchored in the language through online Hebrew language classes and afternoon school visits.
“I listen to Israeli music, and when I yell at my younger brother and sister I do it in Hebrew. I also spend every summer in Israel where I’m forced to speak Hebrew for two months of my life,” he said.
Because Weinstein considers himself fluent, he said he’s not sure he’d study Hebrew in college. Right now he said he’d like to study Japanese.
As yet, charter schools do not serve as a panacea to low enrollments at the university level, but Sokoloff said immersion programs such as the one at Harlem Hebrew are a good step to help turn the tide.
“I have seen some amazing results from a charter school, as in, the kids were singing beautifully in Hebrew and catching on to the language very naturally,” Sokoloff said.
But no matter how good an immersion program is before college, nothing can replace university level language classes.
“I am still a true believer, though that college level instruction can make a big impact, because it teaches students at a time in their lives when they are choosing their own adult paths,” Sokoloff said.