According to my handy-dandy online, never too far away, always referenced, Hebrew-English dicitonary - מורפיקס (Morfix) the word אולפן is translated thus:
For those of you living outside of Israel or who have never be subjected to the harrowing experience (what my teacher calls "fun") of taking a Hebrew language course, this is probably not a familiar or even unfamiliar word. But for those of us who have moved to Israel as adults - and here I include anyone post high school - ulpan is one of the first words and most important words one learns in Hebrew. "Ulpan" might as well mean "the entire world".
Hebrew language classes are provided as a benefit from the Israeli government to new citizens. But like everything else in Israel, it comes as a voucher (in Hebrew) that is nearly impossible to decipher - and it is only called a voucher in the school. The Ministry that provides the voucher calls it something else.
In any even, when given the voucher you are asked which ulpan you want to attend. They are many in each city and many on kibbutzim, You can use the voucher as a blank check but they prefer to fill in the name of the school immediately since only certain schools are authorized to provide language classes that meet the Ministry of Education's standards. We chose, the largest and most well known school in Tel Aviv - מרכז גולדשטיין גורן: אולפן גורדון ללימוד השפה העברית (short name, Ulpan Gordon).
The voucher for new citizens pays for 5 months of full time instruction and is valid for three years. This means some new citizens do not attend language classes until 5 months before the 3 years is up. Some people start the day after they arrive. A placement test is required which sounds quite reasonable, but for those of us who spent years in Hebrew School, this is humiliating. "What do you mean, I have to take the test? I had a Bar Mitzvah. I can sing along with the best of them."
Wrong. Hebrew is a real language, not a 15 minute soliloquy that is memerized at age13. I started at the beginning - Aleph minus, minus. Nada. Nil. And I'm glad I did.
The classes are very mixed in every way possible. The students are different ages, at different stages in life; educated, not educated, employed, married or not and from every country in the world. Some students are able to speak Hebrew - perhaps their parents were Israeli or they have been living in the country for awhile - but cannot read or write. Some students, especially those who attended Jewish Day school can read and write but speak little. Some religious students know obscure terms and poetic language and cannot order in a restaurant.
Some students - especially the Russian ones (and I don't know why) - seem to need only an introductory class and then they are working and moving headlong into Israeli society. Students in their 20s usually master the language within a year. They can manage with every day tasks, get work or continue studies at the university. Having a Hebrew speaking partner accelerates the prcocess 10 fold.
Then there is my crowd. I may be the only one, but I doubt it. I have been here three years and am reasonably literate - can read and write in Hebrew, albeit simple Hebrew. With some difficulty I can read the newspaper which is written in the passive voice that is not used in speech. I can speak Hebrew in my head and to our dog Sami, but when I open my mouth I get nervous and nonsense comes out. I fumble over the words. I have developed dyslexia, reversing the orders of letters in a verb and saying some very silly things. I have to revist the same content again and again.
Everyday is a struggle, but it is a good struggle. At one point in my adult life I had to learn to speak again. Learning Hebrew is a goal that I have set for myself to exercise my brain, to grow, to meet a challenge.
I have been in many ulpan classes and I probably will go back for another. I am progressing much slower than I would like, but I will not give up. Even though I am not keeping pace with the younger students (and many of the older ones as well) I am glad to know them and to have the opportunty to reinvent ourselves together.
5 hours a day, 4 days a week for 5 months is intense.
In the words of our teacher Orly Winograd
בוקר אור. מה שלומכם? יש המון המון עבודה היום. היו לכם שיעורי בית. עשיתם? לא. בסדר. אנחנו ממשיכים עכשיו בכיתה. חבר׳ה, יש מרתון.