February 10, 2012 | Hebrew

Back to College

For an hour, I attend Columbia University.

On Wednesday I visited a first-year Hebrew class at Columbia University. I arranged this visit with Dr. Rina Kreitman, who is the Hebrew program coordinator for the department of MESAAS.

Entrance, Columbia University

Entrance, Columbia University

MESAAS? I had to turn to Google for acronym assistance: Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies.

Dr. Kreitman (her students call her Rina) is a charming and energetic instructor. She arrived at high speed, dressed casually in jeans and with a youthful sweep of long light brown hair. She instantly began chatting and joking with the students, who were clearly fond of her.

For me it was kind of nostalgic to return to a university classroom on what is the eve of my 25th college reunion. The oldest student in that class was less than half my age, which is weird and does not correspond to my experience of reality or sense of self, but it is mathematically accurate in spite of my delusions. 

I counted 16 students, men and women. Upon entering the room, which was squarish and not overly huge, Rina busily began erasing a massive chalkboard covering the back wall. I was amazed, and happy, that there are still low-tech pedagogical tools such as chalkboards at colleges, at least at Columbia. I love low-tech. There’s such a purity to it.

The class took place in Pupin Hall, which houses the physics and astronomy departments. Rina had to erase chalky references to “indifference curves” and “utility max” in order to make room for her own notes. Since I switched my major from applied mathematics to German halfway through college—which switch was accompanied by an immediate, dramatic shift from gloom to joy—I enjoyed watching her erase equations and replace them with language lessons.   

Early in the class was a discussion of how to render in Hebrew the t and th spellings in English names. I am about 90 percent sure Rina said that th in English (as in the name Thomas) becomes the letter tav in Hebrew, while a t in English becomes the letter tet. Both of those Hebrew letters are pronounced identically, as t.

This duplication often confuses students of Hebrew, I had noticed previously in various online postings. It’s funny how accustomed we native English speakers get to our ridiculous surplus of letters and letter combinations for the same sounds. I mean, s, ss, c, sc, and ps all generate the same s sound in “silent,” “ass,” “cilia,” “scene,” and “psychic.”

So really, it could be a lot worse in Hebrew!

We spent a couple of minutes sorting out how to write various names, including Tiffany of “I Think We’re Alone Now” fame. As a not very scholarly type of person, I enjoy pop-culture references, but I think that reference was more meaningful to Rina and me than to the students.

By the way, this may have been a Hebrew class, but it was not a Hebrew-only class. Grammar explanations were sometimes offered in English, while conversation took place mostly in Hebrew. I like this approach.

As I have said before, in language learning I believe in taking advantage of the knowledge one has acquired as an adult. For me it is much more efficient and much less frustrating if someone gives me the English-language lowdown on how to handle, say, past participles in a particular language rather than giving me 300 foreign-language examples over a period of time and expecting me to work out the pattern for myself through osmosis.

After three months of studying Hebrew on my own, I wish I could say the class was a breeze for me. It was not.

Some of this had to do with the fact that I did not, in spite of the advice I was given by a reader of this blog, ever get around to learning Hebrew cursive. All I learned was the print versions of letters. Whenever Rina wrote on the board, it seemed as though she was going at Jaime Sommers-like speed. Not to mention backwards. And leaving behind a trail of squiggly wormy-looking things. (Some of the cursive forms really do not much resemble the print.)

During one conversation exercise where the students paired off, Rina told me they had learned the writing system in its entirety in two days back in the fall. That kind of stunned me. 

I don’t know whether students had trouble reading what she wrote, but no one complained or burst into tears or anything like that, so I think they were okay. 

I am also under the impression, though it was hard to tell, that many of them were able to understand spoken Hebrew at a faster clip than I currently can.

One area where I did perhaps notice some room for improvement—and I mean no offense to these intelligent and hardworking students—was in the realm of accent. Some accents in Hebrew were conspicuously American. It reminded me of the very American pronunciation I used to hear in my college French classes and got me thinking again about the larger question of accents.

I have wondered before whether accent-related challenges for foreign-language learners include not only whether they have the ability to hear the details of pronunciation correctly, but also whether they have the lack of self-consciousness and embarrassment they need to try something new. Even if you have a good ear, there’s a certain almost performance-like aspect to replicating accents in other languages. You are creating sounds that you do not normally create in your own tongue, and something about that can feel unnatural. 

In my case, although I didn’t grow up bilingual myself, I had sisters and cousins and other close relatives who did, so it is very natural to me to hear people I know, and am in fact closely related to, speaking in two different accents, sometimes even three. Maybe this makes me a little more willing to try other accents, because I can imagine myself replicating them, even if my imaginings are not always perfectly reflected in what comes out of my mouth.

Despite this comfort with foreign accents, when I was studying, say, Arabic, I remember that certain sounds sounded particularly odd to me—guttural? throaty?—and I sometimes felt foolish trying to make them, so it was difficult to get myself to commit fully to the effort. On more than a couple of occasions I backed off to a “safer,” more comfortable version of a sound.

When I hear what non-native speakers sometimes do to the r in English—certain native speakers of French, for example—I wonder if our r just sounds too inelegant, too plebeian, to their ears, and whether their version is more familiar and graceful and palatable to them.

In conclusion, are foreign-language students often just embarrassed, and if they weren’t embarrassed, would they have better accents?

I have digressed, though. Many thanks to Dr. Kreitman for so willingly allowing this stranger to visit a class. It was great fun to go back to college, if only for an hour!

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