Learning Hebrew, the new way

Eavesdrop on cabbies and listen to latest hits in an innovative ulpan approach.

Guy Sharett 248.88 (photo credit: Daniel Ziv)
Guy Sharett 248.88
(photo credit: Daniel Ziv)
In what ulpan do you scour a forum to read about 14-year-old girls' various crushes, eavesdrop on cab drivers and write what they've said in a notepad, and listen to Efrat Gosh's hit song "Lirot Et Haor" (See the Light) as part of your homework? No standard one, but that's just what Guy Sharett tells his students to do. The Tel Aviv-based Sharett, who speaks seven languages and has a lingustics background, doesn't run your typical ulpan. He has been giving highly personal one-on-one Hebrew sessions in public areas - a café, on the streets, wherever. This Sunday night, those private lessons are going public, in a pilot program aimed at gathering multiple students to talk among themselves and with Sharett. Usually, he meets each student in a café, and by observing how he orders coffee, the student gleans the nuances of conversational Hebrew. The conversation between Sharett and the student is usually about contemporary Israeli culture and Tel Aviv etiquette. Now, Sharett is going to try his hand at expanding that to a group session, because a student of his suggested such a setting - a group of international olim and expatriates going conversational in public - might help further develop their understanding of the broader culture. Sharett is enthusiastic about the new program, and his current students, who appreciate his methodology, are also optimistic. Some, like Daniel Robles, are unsure of the specifics but are confident it will work out well. Robles, a 34-year-old Spanish physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, came to Israel eight months ago. A few months and two levels of ulpan later, he turned to Sharett. Robles described him as a grammarian who knows contemporary culture, whose sense of humor and relaxed personality help students feel comfortable and open to absorbing the language lessons. That's a large part of Sharett's approach. He helps his students explore and absorb the culture of Israel and Tel Aviv, and, for example, by discussing styles of dress that are acceptable in Tel Aviv but scandalous in Paris, students pick up on the grammar and style, in Sharett's words, "through the back door." "Oftentimes, they remember the anecdote and this helps them to anchor - to remember - the new words," said Sharett. Many are under the impression that language lessons have to be heavy, and that students have to memorize lists of words to learn. While Sharett is adamant that that does not have to be the case, he won't accept students without a basic level of Hebrew knowledge. "It's not instead of an ulpan," explained Sharett. "It's complementary." In fact, Sharett has turned down students who don't have their verbs, tenses, and conjugations down pat. He encourages students to continue with ulpan, as well. Also, the fact that Sharett's lessons are tailor-made is key, because one issue with the standard ulpan is that it is often dry and impersonal. Sharett's are anything but; he is now working with a native Israeli who grew up in Japan and helping her write in Hebrew, and he once taught an Italian Franciscan monk the grammar of biblical Hebrew in Italian. In the end, it's the result that matters most. "Standing in the street, seeing a sign, and suddenly you see the sparkle in their eyes," said Sharett about reading posters in the streets with his students. "I say to myself, 'This is why I'm teaching.'"