Since Israel was established, state-funded ulpanim (and private ones) offer rushed, intensive courses where new immigrants of foreign students learn five times a week for five hours a day. But this method isn't good for language retention or fluency.
Let’s start with a story: A new immigrant to Israel sent us an email, saying she didn’t understand why UAB offers courses just twice a week. She said it didn’t seem like enough contact hours. To quote her: “You can’t learn a new language like that.”
As a private ulpan that’s about to celebrate its eighth birthday, we also pondered this very question. When we established UAB in the summer of 2015, we offered just intensive summer courses. The idea was that the students would learn for three hours a day for a whole month.
The courses drew many students who were new to Israel, as well as those that have lived here for a while and were taking a break from work. However, we quickly understood that it wasn’t such an easy business. Over time, we changed strategy, offering two types of courses: A program with two classes per week, or a program with five classes a week. Though we soon realized that the students that learned twice a week, even though they learned less material, but they retained it more effectively.
So let’s face it: With older people who finished high school quite some time ago, can they really sit for five hours a day and listen to a teacher? Especially when we all have other things going on - work, kids, academic studies and more. Furthermore, every new teaching idea that a foreign language teacher has, comes up between classes and not during the class itself.
The class is meant to give students confidence, to teach them new words, as well as the opportunity to ask questions and understand the language before the student goes out into the world, ready to listen, be exposed, and to practice the language.
In fact, a language school that is in the country where the language is spoken, relies on the fact that the students have heard the words before or after the lesson, and the initial exposure to the vocabulary isn’t necessarily taking place in class.
So here’s what we think: It’s not how many times you learn, rather how you learn it. At UAB, we have students that studied in both public and private ulpanim. Five times a week for five months, and they can hardly order a cup of coffee. Why? Because there’s too much material and vocabulary for their minds to retain. They’re not able to digest or retain the material, and they leave these intensive courses confused and sometimes even against ever learning Hebrew.
This is why we decided on a format of twice a week classes, for the long term, to help the student improve and help them become a true Hebrew speaker.