Two of my Hebrew students confessed to “cheating” today.
In one case, the student, who is an engineer, explained why he wrote columns of Hebrew script — which he is learning for the first time — in opposite directions on a single page of notebook paper. To check his work, I read down the first column, then turned the paper around 180° to read down his second column.
“I’m a born cheater,” he told me. “If I just wrote them next to each other, I’d be too tempted to look at the first column when I did it a second time — that’s why I rotated the paper before trying again. I know myself: I’m a born cheater.”
Later in the day I tutored another student, who is a nurse. When I inquired how her Hebrew study had been going for the past week, the first thing she said was, “I cheated.” Then she guiltily told me about using dictionaries, glossaries, and verb tables while doing the homework I’d assigned her. “I looked everything up, ” she said apologetically. “I had to.”
This student knows that I generally frown upon using references while doing homework exercises. I encourage people first to “study the material,” which includes memorizing new vocabulary, verb conjugations, idioms, and grammatical concepts. Only after they have invested time and effort in this “studying” do I recommend that they begin doing homework exercises. “Don’t look it up! Just leave it blank and keep going!” I exhort them during lessons and classes. “Let it simmer!”
For most adult learners, I find that successful memorization comes only after allowing 24–48 hours to pass between “I can’t remember the right word” and searching for it in a dictionary. Although those hours can be painful — the instant gratification of finding the right answer is so appealing — letting the question “simmer” for a while often leads, eventually, to the right answer bubbling up from the person’s memory. When this happens, the memorized fact tends to “stick” much better. Impatiently looking things up right away might lead to a pageful of correct answers but usually does not represent much learning. For most people, I believe, yielding to this impatience leads only to copying — which can be valuable in its own way, but doesn’t help much with memorization.
But this principle doesn’t apply to 100% of my students. There are some who find memorization to be easier when they do look everything up. In fact, after her confession of guilt, my student the nurse went on to explain that, for her, at least this week, the process of locating the right answers in dictionaries and verb-conjugation tables is what ultimately led her to “get” the material she’s currently working on (possessive endings on singular nouns). She knows herself, too.
As I see it, neither one of these Hebrew students cheated. The engineer forced himself to work from his memory — and saved paper, too. The nurse overrode my rule because it didn’t apply to her situation. These are not cheaters! These are thoughtful, intelligent adults applying themselves to the task of learning a foreign language that is very different from English, looks funny, and goes backwards. The fact that neither person was exposed to much Hebrew or Jewish culture for the first five or so decades of their lives makes their task all the more challenging and their success all the more meaningful.
In a few weeks, when my group classes resume for the fall semester, I expect to hear things like “Oh, dear, I didn’t open my Hebrew books all summer,” and “Sorry! I’ve forgotten everything you taught me.” I hear this every September. Usually it’s not quite true.
Frankly, I’m glad my students feel safe enough with me to make all these confessions. And the fact is, the people who turn their papers upside down, who break my rules, who show up at the end of the summer all hanging heads and apologies, are the very students who succeed in their quest to learn Hebrew as adults. The real cheaters are the ones who give up on themselves and don’t come back.