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Building a Hebrew vocabulary

Native speakers of any given language are bound to possess a much broader passive vocabulary than an active one. A passive vocabulary is that body of words one understands - especially when encountered in familiar context - but would find it difficult to call up. The words that come to mind without too much effort, on the other hand, are part of the person’s active vocabulary. This makes developmental sense: by the time children utter their first words, they’ve been exposed to thousands of others, understanding much (at least the essence) of what is said by their caretakers.

To illustrate passive and active vocabulary, take the word harbinger. For some people, this word comes off the tip of their tongue - it’s part of their active vocabulary. But most people can’t just call it up; while they understand it when they see it in context - such as in the anonymous Chinese proverb, “Virtue is the root of good fortune, and evil the harbinger of calamity” - they likely wouldn’t be able to use it easily in a sentence of their own.

Adult learners of a foreign language such as Hebrew also build passive and active vocabularies. The traditional Ulpan system does a good job of helping students build a passive vocabulary, as the instructors speak, for the most part, only in Hebrew, as well as expose students to all kinds of media, mostly written, that familiarize the students with the sounds and meanings of Hebrew words and phrases.

Possessing a passive vocabulary is vital to survival in a foreign culture, and building it beyond the classroom is critical to successful integration in that culture. To do so, one must simply immerse - starting in small doses and building up, watch TV and listen to the news in that language, listen to its music, read from its newspapers and magazines (starting with the small dose of headlines, graduating to the first paragraphs, then full articles), eavesdrop on conversations in the street, etc. It’s important to take this process of trying to understand these media ÷îòä ÷îòä (keem-AH keem-AH) - bit by bit - so as not to become overwhelmed and lose confidence entirely.

The Importance of Active Vocabulary

But to go beyond survival in a new culture - to become a participant in it - one must be able to converse with its native members. This requires the building of active vocabulary. It is what many new immigrants to Israel find sorely missing in their Ulpan classes; and this is precisely what Ulpan La-Inyan focuses on. To build active vocabulary, a learner must first get his mouth around a word, learning to pronounce it so that a native speaker can understand it. Next, the learner must use this new word in meaningful context frequently enough so that it “sticks”: this can be accomplished in speaking or in writing, but preferably in both. Finally, the learner must go out and use the word in vivo - with actual native speakers.

So many Hebrew learners find this part, of speaking Hebrew with living, breathing Israelis, quite intimidating. My advice here is, therefore, the same as my advice in building passive vocabulary: take it ÷îòä ÷îòä - bit by bit. Start by going to your local îëåìú (mah-KOH-let) - grocery store - and ask how much something costs. Then, on a different day or at a different shop, ask a simple question about a product and try to understand the answer. Gradually, build up the extent and meaning of the conversation, in accordance with what you can understand passively and feel you’re ready to use actively. Ulpan La-Inyan courses are built around this gradual immersion process.

English Hebrew by Subject can be used to build an active vocabulary by taking a group of thematically related words (a section in one of the book’s chapters) and speaking a story or scenario using them, or calling them up in a two-or-more person role play. Then, of course, the words must be taken to the streets of Israel for a full-on immersion experience.

Wishing you much success as you navigate this wonderful language and make it your own,

Ami Steinberger
Founder and Director, Ulpan La-Inyan

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