Nearly 10 years ago I completed my Masters at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and committed myself to a lifelong journey of Arabic and Hebrew language mastery. Studying abroad in Jerusalem played a key role in the development of my language skills and I came away from the experience with the knowledge that there’s simply no substitute for daily immersion in a country’s language and culture. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that it also had a huge impact on my development as a person.
Upon returning stateside, I began my post-university language journey and embarked upon a long process of trial and error, developing my own methods of language training to include the lessons we publish on Foreigncy. My language skills today are unquestionably more superior compared to when I was a graduate student, but somehow I allowed a decade to pass without returning to Israel and continuing my own self-designed study abroad.
A couple of months ago, I came to the conclusion that study abroad doesn’t end when you graduate and decided to head to Tel Aviv for a one-week trip specifically planned around my Hebrew language learning goals. As I’m writing this blog post, I’m sitting at a cafe on Dizengoff Street, drinking a Goldstar, being kept company by a cat that may or may not be a stray, listening to Israelis carrying on conversations in Hebrew, and taking in all the sounds and smells of daily life in Tel Aviv. I’m flying back home in 24 hours and decided to take this opportunity to reflect on this experiment and share some tips that may assist you in your own self-designed study abroad trips.
After booking my travel, I started brainstorming and planning all the core activities of my trip. This was not a trip that I wanted to wing, and now that it’s nearly over, I’m glad that I didn’t. Before I arrived, I reached out to some of the guides and companies below to inform them of my trip’s language goals and request that they only speak with me in Hebrew.
- BE Tel Aviv Food Tour
- Walking Tour of the Old City of Jaffa with Assaf Boker
- Israeli Cooking Class with Citrus and Salt
- Gin Workshop at the Milk & Honey Distillery in Jaffa
For all the above activities, I made a point to tailor my daily study to a particular experience. For instance, before my Gin workshop in Hebrew at The Milk & Honey Distillery in Tel Aviv, I published a Foreigncy Hebrew lesson focused on Gin so that I could better understand the workshop, ask educated questions, and get the most out of the experience as possible.
I took the same approach for my Hebrew cooking class with Citrus & Salt by studying some of Foreigncy’s Hebrew cooking and food-related lessons so that I could practice all the food vocab I’ve learned over the years. Most Hebrew cooking videos and articles use enough of the same vocabulary that you shouldn’t stress too much over which specific food-related item to study.
Regarding accommodations, I recommend staying at an Airbnb in the center of the city with a local. Choosing an Airbnb with an Israeli roommate who will be in the apartment for your stay will present another opportunity to speak Hebrew and get some great tips on local spots to check out.
Hit the Ground Running
Once you land in Israel, it’s important for you to hit the ground running and start acclimating yourself to speaking Hebrew. Suddenly being surrounded by Hebrew and lacking the speaking muscle memory, it’s important to step out of your comfort zone immediately. You can get started by speaking Hebrew with the clerk behind the currency conversion counter and making conversation with your cab driver. Don’t get discouraged when you struggle to find the words you need.
Before you start your day, I recommend warming up your Hebrew speaking muscles, just like any other exercise. I took about two hours every morning to do the following drills and exercises to prep myself for the day and start thinking in Hebrew instead of English.
- 30 minutes of flashcard practice – Be sure to read the cards out loud
- 30 minutes of watching Hebrew videos on YouTube – It doesn’t matter what topic you choose to watch, but you should plan on reducing the playback speed to 50 to 75% and reciting the audio back to yourself.
- A 30-minute speaking session with a tutor – Before the trip, I booked a package of Hebrew speaking lessons on italki.com and scheduled them for each morning of my trip.
- 30 minutes at a local breakfast spot – Find a comfortable breakfast spot or cafe near your Airbnb to put into practice all the prep work you’ve just done. Order your food in Hebrew, listen to conversations around you, and most importantly, enjoy your breakfast. If you’re at all uncomfortable ordering in Hebrew, prepare yourself beforehand by studying the necessary vocabulary and practice by speaking to yourself.
What to do in your spare time
Between your planned tours and activities, you’ll have a lot of downtime on your hands that you should exploit to get some more language practice in. There’s literally no way you can choose wrong, besides deciding to stay in your Airbnb or hotel and watch Netflix. I found the following activities to be rewarding and useful:
Browse a bookstore – While going for a walk I stumbled into the Bookworm book store (תולעת ספרים) in Rabin Square and found something meaningful for a loved one. In the course of my perusing, I was able to use my Hebrew with the store clerk to tell them what I was looking for and at checkout ask them if they could gift wrap the book for me. One tip for your bookstore perusing, when someone asks you if you need help in Hebrew, don’t instantly say no to shut down the conversation, exploit the opportunity to practice your Hebrew.
Grab a coffee at a local cafe – Find a coffee shop near you to practice ordering your favorite coffee and use the opportunity to sit and listen to conversations around you. This a
Take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves – During my stay, the Ethiopian community in Tel Aviv organized a massive protest in Rabin Square over police brutality against Israelis of Ethiopian descent. I made sure to check out the protest and hear the slogans chanted in the streets.
No matter what language you’re studying or when you’ve finished your college study abroad program, the responsibility of maintaining and improving your language skills falls on your shoulders. Immersing yourself daily in a foreign language is one of the best ways to make massive strides in your language study and designing a brief study abroad program for yourself is not only a great language learning strategy but also a rewarding life experience.