Learning the lingua franca at Ulpan La-Inyan

A group class costs between NIS 1,000 and NIS 1,400 for a 30-hour course with discounts for students, members of AACI, and other groups.

Ulpan La-Inyan (photo credit: PR)
Ulpan La-Inyan
(photo credit: PR)
Without question, one of the most challenging aspects of moving to another country is learning the local language. While one can often get by in English in most foreign countries, becoming a local requires knowledge of – and comfort with – the local language.
This is true whether one moves to Spain, Uganda or Israel.
Because language is such a large factor in successful immigration, the government provides all immigrants with an ulpan course (intensive Hebrew language lessons) free of charge. Usually, a course is five hours a day for five months and must be taken within a year and a half of making aliya.
How important is it for olim to learn Hebrew? Peter T. is in his sixties and moved to Israel three years ago from New Jersey.
He is currently taking his third ulpan.
When asked why he continues to take language courses, he says in addition to making friends and socializing, it’s very important to learn Hebrew. “You need Hebrew to argue with the government agencies!” he says, only partly joking.
“Seriously, you need it for everything, to go to the bank, to make a doctor’s appointment, to read your mail, to make friends. You need it to be part of the country instead of a permanent visitor.”
Does he think it’s important to be part of the country? “It’s why I’m here.”
Despite the availability of free ulpan courses, many olim still use English to communicate.
This is something Ami Steinberger noticed while walking the streets of Jerusalem. Having been raised in the US in a bilingual home, Steinberger had always spoken Hebrew and English.
He began teaching Hebrew in California and decided to study a foreign language himself to understand the challenge.
Steinberger taught himself Arabic and Spanish using a method created by Paul Pimsleur, a language professor who spent 40 years developing a method of learning language focused on speaking, the way that children naturally learn language.
After moving to Israel, Steinberger noticed that “Everywhere I went [in Jerusalem], Anglos were speaking in English. They weren’t able to speak Hebrew, which meant that they did not feel at home here.” His experience with learning languages gave him the idea to start teaching Hebrew using a similar method to Pimsleur. He created a curriculum and lessons using vocabulary and phrases that an immigrant would need.
Starting with four pupils and teaching on his own, the ulpan grew, and now Ulpan La-Inyan employs dozens of teachers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Modi’in, Ra’anana, Efrat, Beit Shemesh and other cities all across the country and teaches some 600 students a year.
Steinberger attempted to get his ulpan officially recognized by the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, but the lack of literature and classical articles in his courses made them reject him on the basis of not being academic enough. “Olim don’t need literature,” he says, “they need to be able to function. To ask questions and to understand the answers.”
This year, in a huge win for olim, the government decided to allow new immigrants who arrive in 2017 the ability to study in an ulpan in selected private institutions and be reimbursed.
This opens the door to much flexibility that was not previously available, both in terms of timing and in terms of teaching methods.
Ulpan La-Inyan was granted this status, and now can offer Hebrew studies in small groups and on a flexible schedule, with these olim receiving full reimbursement from the government. With this rule, immigrants have a much wider variety of choices of where to study, and institutions offering Hebrew studies must now compete, thereby improving what they offer.
Yakop Kalvo made aliya eight months ago from Turkey. Because of his job, he was unable to take the government ulpan, which was five hours a day, five times a week. He heard about another ulpan in the evening and signed up but was soon disappointed in the teacher.
He wasn’t learning Hebrew and he was very frustrated.
He found another ulpan and tried it.
There, he also met with disappointment.
“There were people on different levels. Some were better and could read and write. Others didn’t know what an alef was. It wasn’t fair. The texts they used were old and not useful for an oleh.
Trying to reach someone to complain was difficult.” Kalvo, who speaks Turkish, English and French, finally found Ulpan La-Inyan.
“They are amazing,” he says. “Ten times better than the other ulpanim.
You sit and learn, and as soon as you leave class, you can use the words you just learned. They give very practical vocabulary and confidence to use the language.”
Noah Stoffman and Jennifer Richler, a couple on sabbatical and taking their third course with Ulpan La-Inyan, agree.
“It’s almost eerie how we learn words and then see them or use them the next day. The lessons seem so tailored to the oleh experience, like filling out forms or getting directions or making an appointment.
Or even phrases like, ‘How are your kids acclimating?’ They give us very useful language and phrases and practical tools such as how to navigate a website. I don’t need the translate feature anymore, it’s great,” says Richler.
Her husband adds, “In day school you learn words that are not in use, like formal and outdated modes of speaking that don’t help olim and people who want to communicate. We need the phrases, the language people use and yes, even the slang in order to integrate.”
According to Steinberger, a typical class is an hour and a half. The first 30 minutes is a speaking-and-listening interactive lesson, with no texts. Then, the class works out how to write the words they have learned, going from the spoken to the visual. After that, they rehearse a dialogue or text using the new vocabulary. The lesson ends with a free-flowing conversation.
The lessons specifically begin with spoken language. “Learning a language by starting with reading and writing is like learning to ride a bike by looking at diagrams. We don’t teach people how to ride a bike with diagrams. We put them on the bike,” says Steinberger.
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are the main centers for Ulpan La-Inyan, but there are groups in major cities and private groups all over the country. This is what makes Ulpan La-Inyan so oleh-friendly. Any group of four people, so long as they are on the same level, can request a class – wherever they live. Compare that to the 25-student minimum government classes and you can see why Ulpan La-Inyan is growing rapidly in popularity.
They provide ulpan classes to MASA programs, such as Bnei Akiva, Yahel and Bina, as well as give classes in offices and places of work.
A group class costs between NIS 1,000 and NIS 1,400 for a 30-hour course with discounts for students, members of AACI, and other groups. There are also discounts for those who made aliya in 2016 who don’t qualify for the government subsidy. Ulpan La-Inyan can be taken instead of, or in addition to, a traditional ulpan, but not at the same time.
So, nu, what are you waiting for? Get on that ofanayim!