Hebrew Study Abroad

As a "melting pot" of numerous and varied cultures brought over by Jews immigrating to it, Israel has had extensive experience with intensive instruction of Hebrew to speakers of other languages. With the massive influx of new immigrants to the new Jewish state from Europe and from other countries in the Middle East and from Africa, as well as from the Americas, the government felt that it was necessary to provide regular, intensive instruction of the language, and to do so all over the country - from the cities to the smaller towns and villages, as well as in the kibbutzim. These intensive Hebrew language schools were named ulpanim (singular ulpan). Although their primary function has been to teach adult immigrants to Israel the basic skills of speaking, writing, reading and listening, they also incorporate a strong component of culture. And even though they were initially introduced as vehicles for facilitating speedy integration of immigrants to Israeli society, their target population later expanded into the foreign student body. Today, every major ulpan, primarily at the university but in other locations as well (ulpanim run by the Jewish Agency, by municipal authorities, by kibbutzim, and numerous private ones) has a significant number of foreign students among it clientele.

Here are sample impressions from visits in a number of Israeli ulpanim (intensive Hebrew school) conducted in Israel by Shmuel Bolozky in January 2007 and May 2008, with some help from Noemi Schwarz and Benjamin Hary.

This ulpan is not associated with any university; it is a private non-profit institute that has been operating from the early 1950s, under the academic supervision of the Israeli Ministry of Education, but with its own Board of Trustees and a general manager. Its clientele ranges from new immigrants to tourists to foreign students, all learning together happily and harmoniously according to proficiency level, regardless of age. It is unique in that, like the famous Middlebury College, it functions as a "boarding school," where any student who does not insist on commuting is given the opportunity to live there 24/7, eating and sleeping there kibbutz-style, and to enjoy a variety of cultural activities and experiences well beyond the classroom, all designed to enrich and reinforce his/her proficiency in Hebrew. A typical session lasts 25 days, and costs $2,900, board and lodging included, but universities sending their students there can negotiate up to a 35% discount. Students coming for longer periods have other opportunities for stipends that may be available to them through certain funding institutions.
Strong points:

  • Opportunity for total immersion, enriched by cultural activities and experiences that promote proficiency.
  • Emphasis on oral proficiency, although other proficiencies are covered as well.
  • A relaxed, supportive atmosphere, with opportunities to interact with students from other backgrounds and culture - mostly in Hebrew.
  • Although the facilities are old, complete renovation is planned. They even include a swimming pool and gym. The ulpan is located close to the beach.

Emeq Ha-Yarden Ulpan

Located at the Tsemach Regional Council of the Jordan Valley, this ulpan is typical of intensive Hebrew schools established and run by the Israeli government and its Ministry of Education. Students (mostly new immigrants, but overseas students and tourists as well) commute to campus, either from their residence in an urban center like Tiberias, or - more commonly - from rooms assigned to them in neighboring kibbutzim. Oral proficiency is at the center of instruction, but at the same time, teachers skillfully incorporate writing, reading and listening, while still maintaining the emphasis on oral communication. The international atmosphere in class is very pleasant, and students enjoy considerable individual attention. Typical sessions are 5 months long. The tuition is reasonable, and some fellowships may be available. The somewhat-secluded location allows concentration on the language without too many distractions.

The Tel Aviv University Ulpan, http://www.telavivuniv.org/ulpan.aspx

There are two streams at the Tel Aviv University Ulpan: one for overseas students visiting TAU for a limited period to study Hebrew, the other a preparatory program for new students registered for some regular university course of studies, who need to acquire basic skills that would allow them to take university courses in Hebrew (new immigrants, native Israelis requiring remedial Hebrew, and overseas students who are registered for any mainstream courses). The ulpan is located in a huge dorm complex right next to campus, which constitutes an island of tranquility in the heart of Tel Aviv, with easy access to everything this exciting city has to offer. The dorm space is large enough to allow overseas students to share rooms with Israeli students - a real linguistic advantage. The preparatory classes Bolozky attended were taught by very professional teachers (TAU is one of the only campuses in which research in applied linguistics is conducted), and he reports that the level of the students, in all types of proficiency, was amazing. Courses are available during each semester, as well as in the summer and during the winter break, and tuition ranges between $450-1500, depending on length of course.

Ben-Gurion University Ulpan, http://web2.bgu.ac.il/CISP/

Located in the "capital of the Negev," Be'er Sheva, south of which is mostly desert, Ben-Gurion University is Israel's fastest growing university, where many departments enjoy international acclaim and reputation. It is also considered to be one of Israel's most pleasant and most welcoming campuses. As in other campuses in Israel, courses are available during each semester, as well as in the summer and during the winter break, but except for the summer, classes are smaller, and students consequently get closer individual attention. They are also more likely to share dorm rooms with Israelis, which clearly contributes to improved oral proficiency. There are less outside distractions in a city like Be'er Sheva, which may also - inadvertently - result in more attention being paid to one's studies. At the same time, there is a special unit in the Overseas Student Program that provides a myriad of social and entertainment activities all year long, ranging from folk dancing and visits to shows, to extensive trips, even jeep tours of the desert and visits to Bedouin attractions. As in other ulpanim, Bolozky reports that he was very impressed with the students' level of proficiency; the results were invariably good, regardless of the various teaching methodologies actually used by individual teachers.

The Hebrew University's Ulpan, http://overseas.huji.ac.il/academics.asp?cat=24&in=0

The HU ulpan is part of the Overseas Students Program at the Rothberg International School. It is a large program, with the 5-week summer ulpan alone hosting 800 students, and its teachers are very experienced and highly professional. Bolozky reports that the students observed there were probably the most proficient of all the ones he met during his visits. The HU ulpan has also been developing sophisticated Internet-based instructional programs available to everyone, which students use mostly on their own, including movies with related comprehension and grammar drills. They completed a set of listening comprehension CDs with accompanying workbooks, which emphasize the role of intonation and cultural cues, as well as interviews with authors, some adapted plays, etc. There are many afternoon and evening programs, as in other ulpanim, and overseas students have the option of residing with Israeli students if they wish to.

The University of Haifa's Ulpan, http://overseas.haifa.ac.il/programs.asp?dict_id1=3&a=a1

The University of Haifa Ulpan provides an excellent opportunity for total immersion in the language, and foreign students are strongly encouraged to share rooms with Israeli ones at the residence halls. The Overseas Students courses are open to Israelis, and foreign students can take any general course if their Hebrew proficiency is adequate which promotes collaboration and sharing between Israeli and foreign students (e.g., in a typical arrangement, an Israeli student takes lecture notes, an American teammate summarizes or translates assigned articles in English). Since there is no meal plan, Israeli and foreign students cook their meals together in the dorm, which further promotes the interaction between them. Strong emphasis is put on community service. The program is particularly anxious to tailor its offerings in language and culture to the specific needs of different student groups (e.g., heritage speakers are given intensive, two week training to prepare them for integration in regular Hebrew classes appropriate for their level), and efforts are made to enhance the cohesion of the class in both academics and social activities. The instructors are keen on maintaining a careful balance between skill, grammar and content, without concentrating on one at the expense of the other. Whereas in some other ulpanim, the more experienced teachers stay during the year, and substitute ones fill in at the intensive summer ulpan, the University of Haifa places its best and most experienced instructors in the summer setting. There is also interaction with learners of other languages, such as Arabic (which is one of the strengths of the University of Haifa foreign language program), and some of the foreign language and cultural experiences are shared. There are special events planned, and the educational/cultural trips are often led by Hebrew teachers who are also certified tourist guides.

Ulpan Etzion, Jerusalem, http://www.jafi.org.il/aliyah/abscenters/abscentlist/ulpanetzion/index.asp

Ulpan Etzion is the first intensive Hebrew teaching program established by the State of Israel (1949), to facilitate the integration of new immigrants, residents as well as non-residents; most of them are academics, or students planning to study in Israel. New immigrants admitted into the program are fully supported by the Israeli government. The ulpan is located in the Baq`a neighborhood of Jerusalem. Students are divided into four levels (A-D), and lessons are held for five hours a day, five days a week for a period of five months. All four proficiency areas are addressed in class, but the mix of students from different backgrounds, and the fact that some of them already work in the community, assures a high level of oral proficiency. Extra-curricular and cultural activities also contribute to better proficiency and social integration.

For a description of various ulpanim in Jerusalem, see Morris Rosenthal's survey at http://www.fonerbooks.com/ulpan.htm.

Ulpan Ma`ale, Tel Aviv

Like Ulpan Etzion, this is a government-supported program, with a five-month program, mostly for new immigrants, but non-immigrants may enroll as well (some fees apply to the latter). Immersion, with strong emphasis on oral proficiency, is again a strong asset here, as is the interaction with a multi-cultural and multi-lingual student community which, in addition to the cultural benefits, also forces the students to communicate only in Hebrew. The ulpan is located in southern Tel Aviv, in the Hatikva neighborhood, adjacent to the colorful, exciting Hatikva market, and enjoys other advantages offered by the City of Tel Aviv-Yafo.

The above are just a few of the numerous ulpanim you will find in Israel; the sampling above, although somewhat representative, is just "drop in the sea," and reflects accidental opportunities that arose while we visited Israel. There has been no intention on our part to either exclude or over-privilege any programs, and we will try to add to the list when we have had an opportunity to visit additional ones.

As already noted above, in a country established to absorb Jewish immigrants from all over the world, the teaching of Hebrew has always been regarded a priority, and has enjoyed considerable state support. To suit the needs of immigrants, ulpanim have been opened in some of the most remote areas, regardless of size of settlement. This tradition has also benefited the universities. But teaching style at the various ulpanim is not uniform. At the major universities, the goals tend to be more academic than they are in non-university ulpanim, where greater emphasis is placed on pragmatic use of the language. Particular ulpanim tend to use a set of textbooks that had been prepared by veteran teachers for their respective institutions, and other teachers are instructed to use the same. They do, however, supplement the textbooks with current materials drawn from newspapers and the Internet, with recordings of authentic language materials, with video clips and movies, etc. In other institutions there tends to be greater variety of teaching materials. The attention given to the four different types of proficiency is not always uniform, and occasionally instruction is geared towards systematic covering of grammatical topics rather than to general proficiency goals. Nevertheless, regardless of methodology and specific approach, the level of proficiency reached is always higher than what is ever achieved when taking similar courses in the US "to some extent because of the better quality of instruction, but mostly because the opportunity for using language outside of the classroom" does the trick. On the whole, differences in style of instruction and pedagogical approach are less important than the effort made by each individual learner to apply himself/herself to actively use the language. It is therefore highly recommended that you make every effort to enroll in an intensive language program abroad.

Thus, when choosing an intensive overseas foreign language program, students should pay particular attention to:

  • The total number of hours of daily instruction; the larger the number, the greater the immersion.
  • The likelihood of the target language being the sole medium of instruction and communication, within the classroom and beyond (at the dorm, in the community, etc.).
  • Opportunities for cultural exposure: communal activities, educational trips, visits to museums and other cultural institutions; viewing films in the target language and attending performances (theatrical, musical, etc.), volunteering for community work, etc. These not only increase cultural awareness and understanding, but also provide additional opportunities to communicate in the language.
  • Checking evaluations, if any are available, of the quality of instruction at a specific institution, and in particular, comparing data on actual performance of past students, before entering the program and on exiting it. The most reliable information would be from external evaluations, particularly when provided by recognized testing bodies, but internal data can be valuable as well. Regardless of the methodology used, what ultimately matters is progress in proficiency.

Making the Most of Study Abroad