In Hebrew's revival, a Nordic people see hope

By Daniella Cheslow

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 6 2012 12:35 a.m. MST

The academy is an official body founded in 1953, five years after Israel gained independence, to coin new terms and preserve correct Hebrew usage in Israel.

Today, Israel offers free intensive Hebrew classes to new immigrants of all ages. The ulpan, Hebrew for studio, allows newcomers to gain a rudimentary grasp of the language in their first few months in the country while they adjust and search for jobs.

The Norwegians visited Hebrew University's Rothberg International School to observe Hebrew courses taught to foreign students. Then they spoke to professionals in the Education Ministry and observed an ulpan.

They are not the first foreigners to look to Israel for language instruction tips. Visitors from the Maori tribes of New Zealand, from Wales and from the Basque region of Spain have come before.

Welsh expert Jasmine Donahaye, a researcher at Swansea University in Wales, said that Welsh educators visited Israel in 1973 to learn how to preserve their language at a time when Welsh-speaking areas were shrinking. They set up adult education courses across Wales with Israeli guidance. They even called their courses wlpan, a Welsh spelling of the Israeli title.

In a 2004 census, about 22 percent of the residents of Wales spoke Welsh, which Donahaye said was a vast improvement.

"It's been a huge success," Donahaye said. "It was a radical innovation."

In recent years the Welsh have moved away from Israel as a model because of rising criticism of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians, Donahaye said. Today it would be difficult to envision the same cooperation.

Halonen and Eira acknowledge there are differences between teaching Hebrew and Sami.

In Israel, new immigrants need the language for their daily existence; in Norway most people do not need to speak Sami. In Israel, ulpan lessons last for five months, at a time when new immigrants are settling in and searching for jobs. In Norway, the Sami already have jobs and established lives, which could make it harder to motivate them to learn another language.

Still, Halonen and Eira said they hope to open a two-month course for adults modeled on the Israeli ulpan next year, and they believe they will find eager students.

"Many of the people we're talking about, the language of their hearts is Sami. ... They call themselves Sami, they are Sami, they are proud to be Sami and they keep the language of their hearts," Halonen said. "They probably know some phrases in Sami and some Christian songs in Sami. They have a belonging to the language."

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