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Is this the struggle to learn a second language or a reading disability?

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

In my first blog I asked the question; “Would you tell your kids you struggle when reading in English?”. We were discussing emotional challenges reading disabled parents face when deciding if they want to reveal this fact to their children.

Now, let’s talk about reading in Hebrew, which is the second (or third) reading language for most people who grew up outside of Israel and were affiliated with Judaism.

Hebrew was my second language, having been exposed to it at an early age in my home, in my school and in my shul. (As opposed to high school French, which was definitely a foreign language for a New Yorker. This is a shout out to Mr. Sabbath, one of the kindest and gentlest teachers at Shulamith High School for Girls, who was still unable to teach me French.)

As a child, I didn't receive much in the way of effective Hebrew reading instruction from my school teachers. But certain memories have recently revealed themselves to me like:

  • Hearing first grade children chant, ״ויאמר ה׳ ״, ״ה׳ אמר״. Thinking they sounded like robots.

  • Looking at the opening pages of the siddur. Lines and lines of Hebrew letters, squished across the page. Each line with a different nekud below the letters. Trying very hard to remember which sound went with each shape.

  • Never being able to keep pace with my high school classmates, who had gone to elementary schools where they were taught “ivrit b’ivrit”.

  • Feeling left behind, during my gap year at Michlelet Orot, because I could not read Hebrew text printed without nekudot. (The hardest of which were Hebraicized English words like אובייקטיבי or אמנציפציה.)

But I am an adult now, having lived in Israel for more than 27 years. My Hebrew reading skills have improved tremendously over the years, because I choose to be involved in Israeli society and I choose to interact with the Hebrew language regularly. And I studied in ulpan three different times.

As adults living in Israel, proficiency in both spoken and written Hebrew is essential, regardless of whether you live in an English speaking neighborhood and work in English. The needs of our daily lives, like banking, health care and shopping, and those of our children like, school, homework and friends, mean that you have to read (without nekudot) and speak Hebrew with relative coherency.

So, would you tell your kids you struggle when reading in Hebrew?”.

I don’t need to ask this question, because your kids already know if you struggle. But they chalk it up to your status as an immigrant. The problem is however, they are not entirely correct.

The ability for immigrants in Israel to improve their Hebrew language skills is aided by their daily exposure to the spoken and printed language. Most adults exposed to a second language on an ongoing basis, do learn to read it with relative competence, even without nekudot (in the case of Hebrew). For someone with a reading disability however, the ability to read a second language is always going to be a struggle.

In many ways, our ability to manage in Hebrew is more critical to our family's well being than our English reading skills.

  • Can you set up a bank account for your son or daughter?

  • Can you study with your teenager for the history bagrut?

  • Can you advocate for your child’s health and education?

I challenge you to examine yourself. Do you rely on friends or family members to explain something in Hebrew for you? Do you avoid situations and opportunities because you don’t read Hebrew easily?

What practices can you incorporate into your daily life in order to improve your skills?

Why should you?

  • Because you will be able to manage your life better in Israel.

  • Because you will be a more helpful parent.

  • But most importantly, because you will feel better about yourself.

Wishing you only success with your new life in Israel!

Gayle Shimoff

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