Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Accentuate the positive

According to a recent Arutz7 article:

“Researchers at Haifa University have discovered that non-native speakers of Hebrew understand the language best when it is spoken in their own accent.”

It’s good that the “researchers” have made this brilliant, ground-breaking “discovery”, because every oleh in the country has known about it for years…

For instance, we once had a certain technician here in TRLEOOB*, and as he worked, he had the radio on in the background.

The scene caught YZG’s attention, because the radio wasn’t turned to a music channel.

Instead, the man was listening to a shiur, and YZG immediately recognized the speaker – a noted rabbi and lecturer - by his distinctive Brooklyn-accented Hebrew.

“That’s Rav X, right?” YZG asked rhetorically. “I’ve heard him speak a couple of times. It’s very easy to understand him, no?”

The technician – a native Israeli of Yemenite extraction – shook his head and retorted with a good-natured smile, “Well, maybe for YOU, he’s easy to understand…”


Yet, although I concur with the Haifa University researchers’ basic premise, I must take issue with their conclusion:

“[M]any believe that those learning a language should be taught by a native speaker, in order to learn the correct accent. However, the scientists say, further research may prove that method to be less effective than the teaching of language by an instructor with an accent similar to that of his or her pupils.”

I disagree with this hypothesis, because I think that it’s very important to try and “learn the correct accent,” in the words of the article.

Obviously, those of us who made aliyah as adults will never really lose our American (or other foreign) accents. But one’s klitah (absorption into Israeli society) is likely to be that much smoother, if one doesn’t sound like one is straight off the boat the NBN flight.

Your thoughts?


*TRLEOOB=the real life equivalent of our blog


  1. I agree with your conclusion more than theirs. It's not enough to know the words; the accent is really key, too.

  2. I have been here almost 43 years. My accent is a disaster! My Hebrew is fine. I can listen, read and even write well in Hebrew but when I open my mouth all you hear is American. I just tell myself (an others) being an olah from the US is nothing to be ashamed of.
    I have taught English here too. I never made an issue of accent. I think you should be exposed to good correct language when you are learning. By that I mean that the grammar and syntax should be correct so you don't learn mistakes. We are a country of immigrants and we have a lot of tolerance for different accents. what is important is to be exposed to correct Hebrew, so that good Hebrew sounds natural.

  3. That's a really hard question! I'll sleep on it and get back to you ;)

  4. Pronouncing correctly has to do with how much exposition to foreign sounds you have had as a child (before the age of 8) so it is difficult to improve this once you are grown-up.
    I agree with Risa correct language is more important.
    When it comes to English, I understand really well most native speakers of English, unless their accent is too strong, or French people since I recognize the way they distort sounds. However an Indian - for instance - who speaks English is very difficult to understand.

  5. I don't agree with it. What's easiest to understand is the type of Hebrew one learned. I didn't learn American-accented Hebrew, so it sounds like a horrendous dialect to me.

    I learned Israeli Hebrew, and that's the easiest to understand.

  6. Yaffa - Yeah, that's what I think. Shabbat Shalom!

    Risa - Welcome to the blog! I agree that grammar and syntax are much more important than accent, but I still feel that, all things being equal, new olim should be exposed to the "correct" accent.

    Toby - :-) Shabbat Shalom!

    Ilana-Davita - I experience the same thing, but in Hebrew, of course. For instance, I have to struggle a bit when speaking in Hebrew to my friend who made aliyah from France.

    Batya - What's easiest to understand is the type of Hebrew one learned.
    Well said! And this is why I think that, ideally, new olim should be taught by teachers with the "correct" accent.


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