Sunday, April 25, 2010

On Language Learning

Quite frequently I've heard the complaint made that our children spend years and years in yeshiva and come out not being able to speak/read/write Hebrew well. Many have wondered how or why this can be the case when they are exposed to Hebrew throughout their schooling days. Inevitably the yeshivas are blamed for this. "They" are not doing their job correctly.

Let me begin this way, not looking at Hebrew. A child born in the US and attending school here through 12th grade should, by the standards of those who are complaining about the Hebrew facility of our children, be absolutely fluent in English, speaking, reading and writing it. And nothing could be further from the truth. I'll bet that you all know at least one person and probably many more than one whose command of the English language is rudimentary or quite plebeian. Hand some of these people something a bit more complex than a Dick Meets Jane book, and they can't make heads or tails of it. Their writing is not fully functionally grammatical, and their vocabulary is elementary. Their speech is of the "Can you tell me where the bathroom is?" type. Yet others may be a step or two above the level of the first group, but not so much so that we could point to them as prime examples of English users.

There are many reasons why these people are not accomplished users of English. In some cases there is a competing language being spoken at home by the family. The students may find themselves with dual competing loyalties as to which language will take precedence. These students may not have parents who are themselves "quality" English users, so the English they hear at home, when they hear it, is very basic and sometimes broken. The parents may not be encouraging their children to develop their English skills, either because they don't care or because they don't know how to do so.

Then there is this: learning a language requires certain inborn aptitudes and skills that not every student possesses. The student may want to learn that language but may not have the aptitude to do so. In addition, we surely are all aware that not every person on earth has the same IQ as every other person. Some people are "smarter" than other people. Some people are more studious than other people. Some students will do better with one method of presentation and some students with a different presentation. And some students will not do well in a particular subject no matter how it is presented. You can expose some students to the English language all their school years and they still won't be prime English users.

There are experts in the field whose position is that total immersion is the only way to teach a language to someone, 24/7. Yet other experts chime in that total immersion can work, but it must start when a child is young, birth being the best time to begin. Language patterning begins early and if you don't catch a child before they begin their formal schooling they may never become fully fluent. Still other experts maintain that immersion is a great way to teach a language but that a student still needs an aptitude for language learning or even immersion won't work or work well.

There are lots of other reasons given as to why a particular person may not have language fluency but the ones above should suffice to make my point. Change the word English to Hebrew and the points made still apply. There are many reasons why our children, educated in yeshivas, may not be fluent in Hebrew. There is also another point to be made that applies to second language learning. Those who study a second language in a school setting are generally taught that language via reading. The main thrust seems to be understanding the words read and/or being able to translate those words into the primary language. Actually speaking the second language fluently is not key in the instructional method. Foreign language exams are part of the requirements for many graduate degrees, certainly in the PhD area. And those exams do not test fluency of usage and the ability to speak with "natives" using the language. The exams involve being given some reading passages and translating them accurately into the primary language.

So let's try and be even handed in parceling out the "blame" for why our yeshiva educated children aren't fluent speakers/users of Hebrew. The yeshivas are only one of the partners involved in language learning.


Miri said...

Even being immersed in a place where Hebrew is the language of the land may not help. In seminary in Israel our teachers taught us ivrit b'ivrit but we asked our questions in English and mostly they answered us in English also. We spoke English with our friends in the dorm and at meals and hanging out together. Mostly the people that we went to for a Shabbos also spoke English. Yes a little of the basic Hebrew got improved through shopping in a makolet or asking directions and things like that. But for serious discussions where we wanted to make sure we understood what was going on we used English. And then there were the Israelis who spoke to us in English because they wanted to improve their English.

Lion of Zion said...


i know we've disagreed in the past about hebrew education, but i'm surprised (shocked?) at some of the content of this post.

Allen said...

I'd be curious as to just what shocked you Lion, if you are being serious. I wish the Prof had mentioned that some teachers don't know how to teach a foreign language, which Hebrew is if you are born in the US, even if you are frum Jewish, and that some schools don't go far enough or deep enough in their language teaching. But I also can't argue that the schools aren't the only ones involved in language teaching and learning.

When we talked to the kids at the table or sitting around, we asked questions about what they were learning in school. And we asked those questions in English, even if the subject was judaic studies. And they answered us in English using the occasional correct term in Hebrew for concepts or things. When their friends came over they talked together in English, not Hebrew. They davened using Hebrew and then the Rav of the shul gave a speech and it was in English with some Hebrew words mixed in. The kids went to American colleges and all their studying was in English. If you would ask my kids I bet they would tell you that Hebrew is important to them as part of their being observant Jews, because it is the language of tefillah and of halacha. I second that. But speaking Hebrew, being fluent enough to pass as native Israeli, just was never up there as number one on the list.

JS said...

I'm with Lion, I was pretty surprised to see this post.

I agree with a lot that you have to say, but found myself shaking my head no over and over while reading this.

Perhaps if you're referring to chassidish families where only Yiddish is spoken in the home (or an immigrant family where only the native language is spoken), I could understand it. But, even the worst of learners in the public school or yeshiva system come out speaking functional English. You may not like the fact that they would scratch their heads at the word "plebeian" from the post, but that is hardly what people are thinking of when they mention language fluency.

By the same reasoning, a misplaced comma or even using a double negative or other failure of grammar does not mean one is not fluent. Instead, one merely does not speak or write the language well. Even in the worst of the inner city schools where kids supposedly have a 2nd grade reading level at age 16 there is English fluency of some kind - though obviously not functional enough for society at large.

If kids came out of yeshiva with Hebrew fluency comparable to a native speaker's 2nd grade level, I think it would, sadly, be an accomplishment. I can't even tell you how many times I've been to young parents' houses who have baby books written in Hebrew for their children and shamefully admit to me that they can't understand over half of it.

The biggest problem is that the schools just don't take the idea of Hebrew as a language seriously. I took 2 years of Spanish in high school and I am by no means a language person, and I learned more proficiency in Spanish in those 2 years than I did in the previous 8 or so years of yeshiva. The methodology is completely upside down in teaching Hebrew and on top of that it isn't reinforced by the teachers themselves. Sitting year after year, for example, learning binyan kal, niphal, pi'el, etc. does not even begin to approach what learning a language is all about.

It has nothing to do with the students or the parents. There is a nursery program near me that is run ivrit b'ivrit. It is attended by cultural Jews who generally do not speak Hebrew but find the connection to the language important. All the kids speak basic Hebrew without any reinforcement at home. It's an issue of being serious and using the correct methodologies.

In yeshiva, Hebrew is for songs and for chumash. And even for the latter it's not true anymore because of Artscroll. Look at the materials the kids bring home. Even the Judaic stuff is all in English.

I just don't see the comparison to English at all. Perhaps you should think about how well people in other countries, where English is not the native language, speak English. The fact that you can go to many countries (Israel included) and just speak English and actually have people understand you and be able to respond back is a testament to the fact that most people can pick up basic fluency in a language if teaching that language is done seriously and properly.

ProfK said...

JS and Lion,

Before the debate continues further, do me a favor and define what you believe the purpose of a yeshiva is. If among the purposes of a yeshiva you believe that fluency in spoken modern Hebrew is a requirement then yes, most yeshivas do not produce students who are perfectly fluent in modern Hebrew. Although, to give most of them credit, they do manage, when in Israel, to find the bus they need and buy what they need even with their very rudimentary spoken Hebrew.

But if one of the main purposes of a yeshiva education is the passing on of the tenets, laws and philosophy of being a frum Jew, then being fluent in modern Hebrew language is not a basic requirement. For one thing, our ancient writings are written in a Hebrew that is itself ancient. The vocabulary of our ancient texts is not the vocabulary of the man on the street in Israel today. Language is highly idiomatic and the idioms of yesteryear are not the idioms of today. Nor will much of the vocabulary needed for spoken fluency be found in the ancient texts.

In the country of Greece today students are taught the modern Greek language, first and foremost. The are way older when most are introduced to ancient Greek and the writings of the great philosophers. But then, to today's Greeks, those writings are history, not commandments for how they must live today.

Would you be happier if yeshivas stressed only modern Hebrew,and writings written in modern Hebrew, until the students got to high school, and first introduced them to Tanach then?

Re the foreign speakers of English, for many years I was associated with a CUNY programs called CLIP--Comprehensive Language Immersion Program. Most of my students were already college graduates in their home countries. Yes, they had "learned" English in their home countries. Mostly they could carry on a truly rudimentary conversation in English. And the further away on the language family tree their mother tongue was from English, the less fluent they were in English. Their reading knowledge was much better as they had been exposed to English texts. It took a 40-hour a week immersion for a year or more and lots of work outside of school to get these students to anything resembling the type of fluency needed to funtion in the academic and work world here in the US, and many of them improved somewhat but were never going to be solid users of English.

JS said...

In terms of defining the goals of yeshiva education, I agree we may be talking across each other instead of to each other. I'll address this issue momentarily. Before doing so, I want to note again that you seem to be using fluency as a synonym for excellence. My parents and grandparents were immigrants to this country. All of them became fluent in English. Nonetheless, you can see a progression in degree of fluency/excellence in the English language down the generations. We are/were all conversant in English and could write and read in English. However, my grandparents could not understand sophisticated vocabulary or word usage and sometimes required alternate verbiage or phrasing. My parents have been English speakers for well over 45 years (longer than they spoke their native languages) and are certainly better with grammar and vocabulary than most native speakers, but I would still say my English skills, as a native American who is highly educated, is better than their own. Again though, all three generations are/were fluent in English. Exactly where you draw the line between fluency and non-fluency I am unsure, but it is certainly far below where you seem to feel the division must be made. Even someone speaking/writing "I ain't got no time for all of yous" is still fluent as much as it might make you cringe.

As to yeshiva education, I think the biggest problem is that there is no mission statement or pronouncement of goals. At the very least, doing so would help the community and administrators separate the chaff from the wheat and figure out where to make painful cuts to budgets to bring costs in line with what most parents can afford to pay.

To me, the problem with yeshivas (and I speak to MO yeshivas as this is where my experience lies), is that they don't teach you anything useful or practicable for being a thinking and feeling Jew. The goal is merely keeping one frum (whatever "frum" means), and is mostly accomplished by keeping the students away from non-Jews, and perhaps more importantly, Jews with different hashkafas and denominations. Through fear of the unknown, students are kept in the fold (e.g., non-Jews don't think like Jews, Conservative Jews don't believe God gave us the Torah). To fill up the rest of the time, students learn a bit of Torah and Gemara, and "famous" Rashis and other stories, mostly so they can keep up with the other frum Jews and have a collective body of knowledge. But, any real knowledge of Tanach or halacha is eschewed, as that's what the rabbi is for and/or it's not important. In the same vein, Hebrew is unimportant as everything is in English nowadays anyways and Hebrew is the language of Israel, not frum Judaism in America. By that same logic, it doesn't matter if prayers aren't understood, just as long as they are attended.

Not to belabor the point, but the yeshiva system just creates people that want to marry Jews just like them. The thinking and feeling aspects are unimportant and can be learned later, if at all - ditto philosophy (in fact, my shul rabbi recently confided that he learned his love of Judaism from sleepaway camp, not yeshivas).

The end result is people who are Jews by default or who have picked up a love of Judaism from family, camp, or youth groups. What's left is a whole bunch of adults who practice out of habit without really having any intellectual or emotional connection beyond liking a song or enjoying figuring out a tough sugya.

Miami Al said...

In Europe, the Jews spoke their broken dialect of low German, and were able to communicate with other Jews. My assimilated German Jewish family doesn't have any Yiddish speakers, but all of them could understand some/most Yiddish, it just seemed like a dialect of uneducated German to them.

At this point, modern Hebrew is the language of the Israel, which is important, and also has the potential to be the "Jewish" language.

40% of Jews speak English as their first (and only language). 40% of Jews speak Hebrew as their first language, English as their second. 20% speak their native tongue (Spanish, French, or Russian mostly)m and possibly Hebrew, and possibly also English.

Should the "Jewish" language, where we can communicate regardless of country be English or Hebrew? Those are your two options today, and right now it seems to be English.

Given the extensive work into Jewish education from the Orthodox side, it's a shame that Hebrew can't be the language of communication.

It's not necessarily for religious reasons, but Jewish peoplehood is enhanced by us having a common language, just like the bonds in Latino/Hispanic culture depend upon a common language.

Lion of Zion said...

"I'd be curious as to just what shocked you Lion, if you are being serious."

i was very serious. but to clarify, what shocked me wasn't *what* she said, but rather that *she* said it.

a) my general impression is that profk has high acadmic standards for what she expects from her own students and from jewish schools in general. yet here she is essentially arguing that we should be permissive of dumbed-down curricular goals to suit the lowest common denominator. "some" kids may have difficulty learning hebrew, so we just jetison that goal from jewish education in general? (i could argue the same for math or any other "difficult" subject . . .)

b) the post is marked by a defeatism that is not charachterisitc of her. she argues that it's not realistic to expect complete fluency. fine. but why does this mean we have to give up and accept complete ignorance? there is a wide spectrum between those two polar opposites and why not make the best effort to achieve some intermediary goal? or she argues that textual comprehension skills don't automatically translate into conversational skills. fine. but again, why does it have to be everything or nothing?

Lion of Zion said...


"they do manage, when in Israel, to find the bus they need"

big deal. this is what they have to show for k-12 years of day school?
and i think in *many* cases you are being overly generous in attributing even this egregiously elementary level of hebrew communication to them


yiddish is middle high german, not low german.
and if you meant low german in the polemical maskilic sense of bastardized jargon, it is no more low german than dutch, afrikanners, etc. (my teacher, now head of jewish studies at columbia, has a rant about this)
(but agree with the rest of the comment)

Miami Al said...

LoZ; Thanks for the clarification, I'm not an expert on linguistics.

I knew it split off from a different Germanic root than English, hence the "borrow" words fit comfortably to the speaker, but don't share any grammatical rules.

The low standards on the religious side are what REALLY stun me about Day Schools/Yeshivot. If you don't value the education, why spend half the day on it? If it's strictly formality, and we care about separation, cut back the time, focus on something that will be taught to the kids (don't care what, but you're not teaching much on the religious side, given the ignorance I see from graduates).

But don't take half the school day to create a jobs program at the expense of actual learning for the students!

Tamar said...

Just curious about something Lion, JS, Al. It's obvious I think that you feel that Hebrew should be the primary language of instruction in a yeshiva/day school. I won't argue with that. I don't think most yeshivas do an adequate job of language teaching so that the students can think in Hebrew, not just read it. But here's my question and thoughts.

The posting says that there are other partners in learning a language. It states that some students will not be fluent in Hebrew no matter what the schools do because they don't have the aptitude to learn the language fluently. Are you arguing that ALL students do have this aptitude? Or are you arguing that Hebrew should be the first language for these students even if they are living in a country where English is the first language even if unofficially?

So here's my question. If you believe that Hebrew is primary and that students in a yeshiva should be perfectly fluent in Hebrew, what do you speak at home to and with your kids? From the time they are born do you speak Hebrew and Hebrew only to them? Are the first books yuou read to them written in Hebrew? Each time you interact with your kids do you give the Hebrew words for the things you are talking about along side the English words? Are you making sure that your kids are dual language speakers before they step foot into a school classroom?

Won't swear this is exactly what the prof was referring to when she said that there are other partners in the language learning experience but it sounds like what she meant. Most kids aren't in school before they are three years old. And it's those first three years that most experts in language learning say are a critical part of the learning. What are parents doing to make sure their kids are fluent in Hebrew? Even when they start school and you sit and do homework with them, are you using Hebrew to explain the work to them? Are you having conversations with them in Hebrew? Are you providing opportunities for them to practice the language in practical circumstances and conversations? And if it's obvious to you that the schools aren't doing the kind of job you want in teaching Hebrtew as a language, are you taking up the slack? If yes, then you certainly have the right to complain that the other major partner is not doing its job well. But if you aren't providing an environment at home and in family surroundings that is pro-Hebrew then you aren't doing your job either. I don't take myself out of this either although my husband and I are trying to change how we contribute. We started slowly with making one dinner night a week a Hebrew speaking only night. I also made up small signs with the English word/Hebrew word for all the items in a room, taped them to the items and we quiz each other in learning all the vocabulary.

I think what applies here is that old saying, If you're not part of the solution then you're part of the problem, and again I include myself not just everyone else.

ProfK said...

Oh youch, nothing like waking up and finding yourself on the firing line.

Briefly let me see if I can make clearer some points that obviously were taken one way and which I intended to be taken slightly differently.

1. There are multiple partners involved in learning a language: the school, the student, the parents and family, the outside world (including friends). If any of these partners does a weaker job of contributing to language learning than the other partners, then language learning will not take place at the highest level.

2. There are levels of language fluency and not every person will learn a language, particularly a second or third language, with the same degree of mastery, some of it dependent on that person's aptitude for language learning. Yes, this is akin to other subject matter as well. Even if exposed to the best methodology and the finest teachers, not everyone is going to be as good a math student or science student or history student as others might be.

3. Thank you Tamar for the mention of the role of parents in the process. Let's say that you have the finest language teacher ever seen teaching your children in school. That doesn't exempt the parents from their role. There has to be a practical emphasis on the language in the home. When parents participate in the language learning they bolster a student's chance of becoming fluent and seeing that fluency as important. And if a teacher is not the finest language teacher ever seen then the parents' job becomes even more important, becomes primary in exposing the children to the language.

4. The outside world. Let's presume that the schools and homes are doing a fine job of language teaching, and that the students all have a high level of aptitude to learn that language. There is still the outside world to contend with. If the children's friends are not fluent or do not value the language, then there will be little or no opportunity to use that language in everyday living outside of the school or home. Students will not be interacting with large numbers of others speaking the language on a daily basis. They won't hear the language on the streets nor use it to conduct daily business. It becomes, for many, an intellectual exercise rather than a practical one.

Whole point of the posting? Yeshivas have a whole lot of areas where they truly need to improve, need to change. But we've become entrenched in the idea that EVERYTHING that is wrong with education today is the yeshivas' fault, no exceptions. Unless we are being highly diligent in playing our own roles in the language learning procedure, it's a bit hypocritical to lay all the blame on the yeshivas.

JS said...

Tamar, Profk,

First of all, in case I wasn't clear above, I don't have children yet. My observations and criticisms above are based on my own yeshiva experiences and what I see from the young children in shul and the conversations I have with their parents.

I believe Hebrew is fundamental to our religion if for no other reason than it is the language of prayer and prayer is the way we connect to God both individually and as a community. We're so happy when our young boys are old enough to lead adon olam or ein k'elokienu, or anim zemirot, or eventually lein the torah, but no one seems to care that the children have absolutely no comprehension of the words and ideas they are enunciating (often incorrectly, at that). Prayer is just something you do, not something you understand or feel. It takes on the quality of a magical spell with different sounding syllables arranged in a mystical, incomprehensible order.

Beyond that, it is the language of the Torah and of our Prophets. There is something unique about the Hebrew language and phraseology that speaks to the Jewish soul. There is just no comparison between "gam ki eilech, b'gei tzalmavet..." and "Yea, though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death..."

Finally, I agree with Miami Al that Hebrew is our language for cultural and peoplehood reasons.

Beyond all this, the yeshivas simply have no mission statement or goal beyond frum Jews marrying frum Jews. The time in yeshiva is for separation from the "others" and learning cute stories about how Rivka was married at 3 years old. There's no plan on imparting certain philosophies, ideologies, skills, etc. Every time a parent complains that the yeshiva isn't teaching X, the response is that X is the parents' job or that X needs to be reinforced at home by the parents. Kid doesn't know how to bench? Parents need to focus on benching after meals. Kid doesn't know what parsha it is or what happened in the parsha? Parents need to go over this during the week and reinforce on Shabbat. Kid doesn't know what muktzeh is? Parents need to teach this. Kid doesn't know which shmoneh esrei to say on Shabbat chol hamoed? Parents job.

And it's the same with Hebrew. The yeshiva simply has no responsibilities beyond keeping your kid away from the "others." Now, don't get me wrong. If true excellence in education is required, I agree that parents need to partner with the schools and reinforce ideas and lessons. But, even the kids who have negligent parents who never once sit with them to help with homework still come out of yeshiva with basic English, math, and science skills. Find me one kid who comes out of yeshiva with no parental support and has even basic knowledge of Hebrew or Tanach or Halacha. If a kid was in 8th grade and didn't know the times tables we'd scream about a failure of the schools. But, if a kid is in 8th grade and doesn't even know what the first sentence in Ashrei means, let alone the whole thing, we blame the parents or the shul or anyone and everyone else but the yeshivas.

Ruth said...

Let me avoid problems by saying that I believe that yeshivas, all of them, need some improvement in certain basic areas. But you can't make blanket statements about the kids not knowing Hebrew. There are a whole lot of them who do. Are they perfect at it? Some. But they certainly are capable of translating basic tefillos and chumash. And where they run into trouble with the translations, where they get puzzled, is usually where one of the commentators like Rashi has said that a particular word or phrase here should be translated as X instead of the Y it is translated as somewhere else. The schools where my kids went did not just require rote memorization. They translated ivrit b'ivrit and then into English as well. They had classes in tefillah that weren't just about memorizing what gets said when but that talked about the content and the why behind why we say the tefillos. Could there have been even more done? Sure, but it's not that they did nothing.

And I don't agree that the purpose for the yeshiva system is simply to keep us separated from "them". That would make the system highly negative. I think a lot of schools, or certainly a lot of teachers give the positive reasons for why the kids are in yeshiva. And a lot of parents too.

It's never a black and white situation when it comes to yeshivas, or at least hardly ever. They aren't the evil ones across the board.

Tuvi said...

There are some good points on both sides of the discussion. I believe that some changes need to be made in how we approach and teach the various subjects on the Limudei Kodesh side of the yeshiva curriculum. Some of the methods which are preserved today are passed down from a time period where rote memorization was the only way that some people would know any davening or any of chumash. There weren't printed books available for everyone, and certainly not with side by side translations. Most people weren't literate and couldn't read so memorization was the only way they were going to be able to daven themselves. That method of memorization with little or no explanation worked then but I think something else is needed now.

I also think that the point made that there is a difference between being able to speak a language fluently and being able to use that language in reading and understanding is a valid one. I believe that I can pretty much translate any of the tefillos that come my way, or any of Chumash. But put me together with an Israeli speaking 200 words a second using words that never appeared in our kesuvim and I get dizzy trying to keep up.

Mr. Cohen said...

Sifri, Parshat HaAzinu, near end of Piska 28:

Rabbi Meir taught:

Whoever lives in the Land of Israel and recites Shema morning and night and speaks Hebrew [literally, the holy tongue], behold, he is worthy of the afterlife of the righteous [Olam HaBa].
To receive quick quotes from Jewish Torah books, go to:

JB said...

GRADE school kids in Yeshiva of Flatbush, Ramaz, Frisch are fluent in IVRIT. Upon graduation they are recipients of a Jewish Education. In my formative years the same held true for those who graduated Yeshiva of Crown Heights.

tesyaa said...

JB, Frisch does not have (and has NEVER had) a grade school.

Lion of Zion said...


"some students will not be fluent in Hebrew no matter what the schools do"


"Are you arguing that ALL students do have this aptitude?"


"what do you speak at home to and with your kids?"

originally mostly hebrew and russian. now mostly english.

S. said...

Hopefully I can cut through the chase here. After 12 years of yeshiva there should not be more than one or two unfortunate exceptions per classroom who can't open up a Chumash and be able to fairly correctly, and fairly quickly read through the parashas ha-shavua and understand it. He or she should then be able to read Rashi, and understand it. He or should she also be able to open a Mishnayos, and understand it, especially if he or she is using Kehati. He or she should know exactly what they're saying when they pray three times a day. He or she should not look at these basic texts as if they're written in Mandarin, or to be more accurate, something they're vaguely familiar with but just can't quite understand, at least not without some real brow-wrinkling.

As for the modern language, although knowing Modern Israeli Hebrew today is surely as important for Jewish cohesiveness as knowing Yiddish was 90 years ago (maybe English too, come to think of it), the beauty of it is that someone who can just open a Chumash and read it and understand it is well on their way to being able to do the same with any book in Hebrew. Certainly knowing the language well enough to do what I described gives the person a good advantage in achieving that literacy in MIH. Even if the idea that because they can understand religious texts they are also on their way to knowing MIH is a religiously objectionable side benefit to some, it nevertheless remains true.

Instead, there is indication after indication that after 12 years of yeshiva, many if not the majority, actually cannot open a Chumash, read Rashi or Mishnah in the way I described. Since yeshivas have as an avowed goal the production of talmide chachamim, it is completely mystifying how this is supposed to happen without developing language skills, and here I spoke only of being able to read the language, not to write or speak it!

I'll give you an example: in one shul I sometimes daven in there is a boy of about 14 who often sits there with a sefer of divrei Torah on the parashah, which he reads during the down time. Although it is true that I do see 14 year olds with gemaras, it is a very very rare sight to see a 14 year old with a Hebrew sefer (and here we're talking in a black hat environment which theoretically emphasized learning, learning, learning) because it is evident that this rare boy can understand it independently, while most of his peers simply cannot. The situation will not change all that much in the next 3 years among his peers.

I realize that we're not all talking about "knowing" Hebrew in the same way, but LoZ's point that plenty of people who went through the 12 years cannot understand a Hebrew book for babies should be a starting point we all agree is outrageous.