In getting ready for my trip to London to attend World ORT’s Wingate Seminar on instructional technology, I thought about a number of things to make sure that I was prepared for the trip. I checked the weather to ensure that I had packed the right kind of clothing. I put the finishing touches on my presentation to the group on how our school uses Google Apps for Education as an instructional and administrative tool. I spoke with friends and colleagues who had traveled to London about things I should try to do or see. At no point, did I think about brushing up on my Hebrew. After all, I was traveling to an English-speaking country.

When I arrived at the World ORT house, I received my linguistic surprise. While the sessions were conducted in English, the vast majority of casual conversations were conducted in Hebrew as the bulk of the participants were from schools in Israel. For the last several years, World ORT has been collaborating with the Israeli Ministry of Education on a program called Kadima Mada which enhances science education in schools in Israel’s periphery. Along with representatives of schools in South America, the Former Soviet Union, and South Africa, the Israelis were taking part in the seminar to grow their skills in instructional technology and collaborate with colleagues from ORT supported programs throughout the world.

Sitting at lunch or during a coffee break, I could hear the sounds of Hebrew around me and if I closed my eyes, I was suddenly somewhere in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, not at a conference in the heart of London. It was in these moments that I chose to pick up the gauntlet of linguistic risk and begin to speak in Hebrew with my Israeli colleagues.

Linguistic risk involves taking your existing functional knowledge of a language and trying to stretch it. When you do not have a specific word, you try to work around it by using the vocabulary that you do have. Most importantly, though, it means being willing to make mistakes and to grow to from the feedback that you receive in the conversation.

I am not a native or fluent Hebrew speaker by anyone’s definition. Like most language learners, my vocabulary is limited to specific situations, such as ordering in a restaurant or asking people about how they are doing. I lack the ability to talk about a variety of topics, including many aspects of my own profession. Yet, because I was willing to engage in linguistic risk when speaking with my Israeli colleagues, my skills in having this kind of conversation have grown and my confidence has increased exponentially.

All learning involves some form of risk. After all, you are attempting something new that you have never done before (otherwise it would not be learning). As teachers, it is our job to create an environment where students are willing to engage in risks. This means showing your support through appropriate encouragement and make sure that the risk falls within an acceptable range. The steps between learning concepts and skills need be just far enough apart that students stretch, but not so much that they fall on their faces.

I would not have taken my own linguistic risk if my Israeli colleagues had not encouraged me to speak and supported me as I stumbled my way through a conversation. After five days of continually taking this linguistic risk, I have grown as a Hebrew speaker. I am more comfortable struggling with the language and I have learned new words and phrases.

Imagine if we could constantly create this safe environment for our students to continually take risks in our classrooms, rather than just playing it safe. The opportunity for student growth could be amazing.