...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Learning Hebrew with the preschooleres

I'm taking a beginning Hebrew class with a handful of other people from P'nai Or. It's taught by a woman from the congregation, and definitely has a Jewish Renewal flavor to it--we talk a lot about the deeper meanings of the letters and traditions behind them, Kabbalistic significances of the letters, gematria, that kind of thing. I'm really enjoying it, even though it's very difficult (why, oh why do so many of the letters look nearly identical?!).

I had a realization on my way home from class tonight: I'm acquiring Hebrew the same way my preschoolers are learning to write in English. "Teacher Jessica, how do you spell "submarine?" "Let's sound it out together: Sssss. What makes a sssss sound? That's right, S! Su--bbbb--mmm-rrrr---nnn. Sub-ma-rine." The older ones can usually sound out the consonants and then we help with the vowels.

I write in Hebrew the same way. I was trying to spell my Hebrew name Shulamit the other day. I muttered to myself, "Shhh--That's a shin--Le Le Le--lamed---mmmmm-mem, okay, then a TTT--Tav." I wrote down the consonants Shin Lamed Mem Tav and wiped my brow with exertion. Then I threw a couple extra lines and dots in for the vowels. Were they the correct vowels? Maybe, maybe not. But I felt proud of myself for just writing SH-L-M-T.

My preschoolers' letters are big and sprawling, falling all over themselves and the page. They don't have the muscle control or experience to form tidy, contained letters in a neat line. Oftentimes when kids begin writing the letter A, it comes out looking like an H. They don't know how or are not able to slant their lines and make them come to a point. As they gain literacy experience and practice, they start developing the shapes of their own letters. It's the same way for me with Hebrew. My handwriting is big and sloppy-looking, getting confused and tangled in the unfamiliar shapes and proportions of the letters. Sometimes my aleph looks like an X, and ayin's a mess. I was a somewhat late reader when I was a child--my literacy didn't really start to take off until late in first grade. I can only trust that as I eventually learned to read and write in English, if I stick with it and keep practicing and exposing myself to Hebrew, I'll learn that too. For now, my preschoolers and I will keep sounding things out and getting used to the shape of the letters on our papers and in our mouths.