Listening before speaking

Recently Rafi has been receiving compliments on his Hebrew. He spoke his first sentences in Hebrew a few months ago (December maybe?), but now he’s gotten to the point where he can have a full conversation (with an adorable American accent). He’s also figured out tenses and conjugations with a certain level of complexity. He still makes mistakes, but generally people know what he means and the flow of conversation isn’t interrupted. It’s pretty fun because his naturally outgoing side, previously inhibited by the language barrier, is coming out again.

Someone mentioned to me “how quickly he’s picked up Hebrew within the past few months.” No…he’s been learning Hebrew for well over a year, five and a half hours a day, and only now have the fruits become visible. But to the outside observer who isn’t paying attention (you know how other people’s kids grow up quicker than your own?) it seems like he all of a sudden learned a whole bunch of new stuff.

It’s a common misconception, and as a language teacher, it’s a bit of a problem if I’m not careful when dealing with parents. I explain that all students of a language have a listening period before they begin speaking and that allowing them to demonstrate their understanding non-verbally removes a major source of pressure that is often present in language classrooms. (In professional jargon, the initial stage is called a period of silent acquisition. The passive initial stage is followed only later by active expression.) Sometimes my explanation sinks in; sometimes it doesn’t. In a social context I don’t care as much, but in a professional context I have to be extra-careful to provide evidence that the students understand me if they’re not ready to speak.

At any rate, it’s pure joy listening to Rafi “be himself” in Hebrew, and I’ve been privileged to have a front-row seat for the whole process.


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