"It's a smart choice to focus on the sounds." Interview with Nina Bohmstein, speech therapist and Yiddish studentRead Now
Last week, I spoke with Nina Bohmstein, a speech therapist who is also one of my Yiddish students. (We're reading Harry Potter in Yiddish!)
Her biggest advice for Yiddish students? Pay attention to Yiddish phonetics.
Watch the video here, or scroll down for a written transcript. Then take a stab at reading some of my own phonics-based Yiddish poems! Pay attention to the different vowels, and how they combine with consonants to form repeating patterns ("ײַן", "–ייגעלע", "–ייט–", etc.). And if you'd like information on private lessons or classes, feel free to contact me, Shuli Elisheva, at CreativeShuli@gmail.com. :-)
Nina Bohmstein: Hi! My name is Nina Bohmstein, and I'm taking some Yiddish lessons with Shuli, and I'm learning Yiddish.
Shuli Elisheva: Why did you want to learn Yiddish?
Nina Bohmstein: I think I had it in my head for a while I'd be interested in learning Yiddish, because my mom's first language is Yiddish, and obviously as an Ashkenazi Jew, I know it's the heritage and stuff. But I think it especially intrigued me because it's my mom's first language and she decided not to teach it to me. And eventually, I was looking for a hobby, and I signed up for a class with the Workers Circle. It was an online Yiddish class. The teacher was using the Yiddish Pop website, and basically it was sort of a cute, fun way to start learning some vocabulary, and then I just kept going with it.
I did leave out one important thing, which is that I'm a speech therapist. So, another reason that I was interested in pursuing Yiddish is, I do think it could potentially help my career once I achieve a certain level of conversational fluency, because I can absolutely become bilingually-certified and pick up some more work that way.
Shuli Elisheva: What struggles do you face while learning Yiddish?
Nina Bohmstein: Biggest struggles... um... I mean, I think the biggest struggle is to keep pushing. A lot of people who have my background – my background is that I'm modern Orthodox, I went to Jewish day schools, and we learned Hebrew. I even went to a school that was "Ivrit b'Ivrit" (Hebrew in Hebrew), and it's not that they didn't want to teach Hebrew or even that they were teaching it poorly, but the approach is still more focused on liturgical Hebrew and the religion. And modern Hebrew, as much as they want to teach that to you, they're not getting the students immersed in it in quite the right way. And so, you can wind up really studying Hebrew for 12 years, and obviously you're proficient at davening (praying), and studying chumash, or mishna, or gemorah, if that's what you're doing, but you're not speaking modern Hebrew. So, I think when you have that experience behind you, you start believing in myths that it's hard to learn another language, or you can't learn another language. So I think that overcoming that is a bit of a struggle.
But also, one thing that I noticed in the other direction that I think was interesting with starting Yiddish at this stage in my life, post becoming a speech therapist, is that I have now a background in speech sounds and phonetics. And the way young children learn languages, they're obviously paying attention to speech sounds and vocabulary, and the grammar is being learned less consciously. And obviously, that's a closer, better way to learning language. I think it's a better way to learn language. I think if you take less emphasis off grammar, it's better for you for learning language, because grammar is the thing that, I guess, is the scariest. And I think focusing on the speech sounds was a good thing to focus on, because it's more of a fun aspect of the language. So I think it was a smart choice to focus in on the sounds.
Shuli Elisheva: What advice do you have for learning Yiddish?
Nina Bohmstein: So I actually would recommend that learners pay attention to some of the sound differences. There's a finite number of sounds in every single language. Yiddish doesn't have a whole lot of sounds. It's not really a difficult language to learn its sounds. It's just, if you pay attention to the subtle differences in sounds... I mean, I guess it's more on the educators than the learners to point out some of those things about the Yiddish sound system, so that it's a little more fun, like, "here's how you really want to say that word," you know? It'll just add to that fun aspect of the language.
Shuli Elisheva: How is learning yiddish giving your life more meaning?
Nina Bohmstein: I think because, for many years, Ashkenazic Jews, for almost 1,000 years, spoke exclusively in Yiddish, I think there's a lot of Jewish ideas that are embedded in the language and unique Jewish ways of communicating that are connected to the religion itself that are lost when you're speaking another language. Those expressions and that way of thinking and speaking didn't move over into English and didn't necessarily move into modern Hebrew, either, though obviously Yiddish did influence both languages a little bit. So I think some of that way of life is lost if the language is not passed on. So I do think it's very important to try to pass on the language. Especially in the religious Jewish community, I think it'd be nice if there was more of an interest, because there is a big interest in Yiddish in the secular Jewish world, and I think using it to connect with religious Judaism is also very valuable, because I think it's nice if you can read the parsha in Yiddish, or something in that. I think that's a nice thing to do, and it's another unique way to experience Jewish ideas and Jewish ways of thinking just from reading a religious text.
Are you ready to take Nina's advice, and infuse your learning with attention to sound patterns? Try reading some of my own phonics-based Yiddish poems! Pay attention to the different vowels, and how they combine with consonants to form repeating patterns ("ײַן", "–ייגעלע", "–ייט–", etc.). And if you'd like information on private lessons or classes, feel free to contact me, Shuli Elisheva, at CreativeShuli@gmail.com. :-)