Learning Hebrew Ethiopian-Style

Article excerpt

In Israel, thousands of Ethiopian immigrants are learning to read and write for the first time. They begin not with their native Amharic but Hebrew

You've got to make it "relevant," insists Meir Peretz, the Israeli Education Ministry official in charge of adult education, in explaining a new approach to teach Hebrew to thousands of illiterate Ethiopian immigrants.

Since the early 1980's, Israel has brought in tens of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia, including two spectacular airlifts. More than 40,000 arrived in the 1990s and about 100 immigrants continue to trickle in each week.

The government earmarks about $30 million a year to teaching all immigrants Hebrew, according to Peretz. With the Ethiopians it's not an easy job, since as many as 90 percent cannot read or write in their native tongue, Amharic. The scale and scope of the project is unprecedented internationally, whereby "a group of mostly illiterate people is simultaneously trying to learn to read, write and converse in a foreign language," says Peretz.

Peretz realized several years ago that rote learning of vocabulary and grammar simply didn't work with most Ethiopian adults enrolled in the compulsory 10 months of government-funded classes, keeping many from joining the workforce and blending into Israeli society.

Peer learning

A major obstacle is the huge cultural difference between the rural lifestyle led by most of the Ethiopians and the customs of their adoptive Western country, Peretz says. "If I'm speaking with a native English-speaker, and he doesn't know what the Hebrew word is for glasses, then I can say what the word is. When a person doesn't even know what glasses are, then I have a cultural problem."

Peretz has sought to address this problem by putting Amharic-speaking veteran immigrants, like Isayas Hawaz, into the classroom for at least a quarter of the 25-hour a week lessons. Hawaz, 25, immigrated four years ago and now helps teachers translate their lessons into Amharic at an absorption center in Mevassaret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem. Hawaz said Peretz's method made all the difference for him when he was learning Hebrew. …