Previous to meeting Michel Thomas in the mid-90’s, my experience in learning languages was entirely based on using books and, in some cases, having others instruct me using more traditional approaches. However, I could never really communicate in any of these languages. In fact, the very idea of comfortably conversing in a language other than English was almost unimaginable. Today I find it hard to relate to how I thought then but that was just the way it was for me.
Though I had studied Hebrew for some time I could not hold a decent conversation until I had spent time in an ulpan or Israeli intensive Hebrew program for new immigrants. I began this program to prepare me for a university education which was entirely taught in Hebrew with the most paltry knowledge of the language. I emerged from it a few weeks later being able to read, write and speak on a university level which I found remarkable.
The ulpan ( in Modern Hebrew this word is used for a studio as in a broadcasting studio as well as for an intensive language program) probably lasted all of two months. I had been accepted to a graduate program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1973 and came during the summer to prepare for my studies by taking this mandatory program for foreign students.
After the program I was able to follow lectures in Hebrew and do research and write papers. I also had to write papers in Hebrew in order to leave the ulpan with permission to enter the university. My final paper at the ulpan was on the life and philosophy of Che Guevara. The teachers didn’t care what we wrote on as long it was in Hebrew. I thought that this subject matter was very funny since it was so different than the subject matter of my previous Hebrew studies which had revolved around Judaism. Using the modern version of Biblical Hebrew to discuss non-religious topics was very exciting for me. I love the versatility of the linguistic experience.
In October, 1973, Israel was attacked by its neighbors on Yom Kippur/ Ramadan. The university was closed. After the war the university reopened and we students resumed our studies.
I had learned a lot in a short period of time. During the period when the university was closed I continued my studies on an informal basis. However, the foundation of what I learned in the ulpan has served me well since. It was the first time I was actually able to communicate comfortably in a foreign language which, for me,was a great achievement.
About ten years ago I decided to take my Hebrew to the next level. I enrolled in a summer ulpan at the University of Haifa. It was a two-month program. Since I had not used the language for many years I was concerned about how much I would get out of the program.
The first day all the students, both Israeli and foreigners, were assembled in a large lecture hall.
A woman arose and spoke to us in Hebrew for about five minutes.
She then said in English, Anyone who didn’t understand what I just said please stand up and come to the front of the hall.
About half of the students came down and left the hall with her. They formed the first two levels of what I learned was a six part program. The levels ranged from aleph ( one) to vav ( six). The Hebrew letters all have numerical values. In fact, one of the ways of reading the Bible is as strings of numbers. Obviously, this provides a very different experience and way of learning than the more traditional conceptual approach.
The rest of the students left in the all were told that we would have a written exam consisting of answering questions on grammar as well as writing an essay on some subject which we would be assigned. We were given two hours for the written part.
In addition, we would be individually examined in spoken communication.
Half way through the written, someone tapped me on the shoulder and led me out of the room. I was taken to a room where a woman interviewed me in Hebrew. I liked her a lot and hoped she would be my teacher. She told me that she would not be my teacher since I would not be appropriate for her level of instruction.
I was downcast. I assumed that I would be in a very low level since she obviously was a high level teacher.
Later, I examined the assignments on the wall at the end of the day and learned that I was in kita vav ( level six), the highest level. As usual, I had assumed that I didn’t compare well to the other students. This has been a life-long struggle for me, fighting against very poor self-esteem.
I had a wonderful summer and decided that my level of Hebrew was such that I would no longer need to take classes. Instead, I returned to Israel later on and just used the language in daily communication.
So this is what an ulpan is capable of producing in students.
It was a program originally developed to rapidly integrate new immigrants from many different lands who did not know Modern Hebrew so that they could fully participate in the life of their new nation. It has been honed and improved over 60 years and it works. I learned a lot from that experience and not only about Hebrew. I learned what was possible in language learning. It compared favorably with my own experiences in language classes.