Looking for the best ways to improve your reading skills in Hebrew?
Great! You've come to the right place. Here you'll find some solid advice about language learning in general, as well as some tips and tricks about learning Hebrew in particular, that you can put into practice right away. But first- let's talk about why you should be practicing your Hebrew reading in the first place. Isn't it enough to just be able to speak Hebrew? Why read?
Here's something to keep in mind- language learning and acquisition is traditionally divided into four main skills: listening, speaking, writing, and reading. Most language learners tend to focus on listening and speaking most, but it's actually just as important to dedicate time to further your reading and writing abilities in your target language. Reading and writing are the gateways to layering complexity and depth of expression. If listening and speaking are how you communicate in daily life, reading and writing are how you form complex and nuanced thoughts and concepts. It's safe to say that reading and writing are the gateways to true mastery of a new language- to really living in the language, as opposed to just skimming the surface of it. Unfortunately, reading comprehension is often perceived as the hardest and most frustrating skill for language learners to practice. Why is this so hard?
For one thing, when you're reading, you're effectively shutting off all channels of non-verbal communication, which means you can't rely on observing body language, vocal inflection, tone, or facial expression to help you figure out what's being said in your new language. All of the subtle clues that are available to us when we're listening simply aren't there to help us when we're reading. You're left with just the "pure" new language that can be very different from the one you were brought up in, without the assistance- or crutches- of non-verbal communication.
In addition, getting your mind around sentence structure, grammar, and new vocabulary can be hard in any new language, but for many Western students it's even more so when learning Hebrew. The Hebrew alphabet is very different from most western alphabets. The letter shapes are different, there aren't any true vowels, some letters are written differently at the ends of words, and it goes right to left, rather than left to right. It makes sense that people find this daunting, and many students decide that they'd rather just "learn to speak it" and give up on reading. This might feel better at first, but Hebrew students quickly find that their way forward into the language is limited, and that they will always have to rely on a teacher unless they use reading to gain exposure to new vocabulary and complex sentence structures on their own. Learning to read is the best way to develop your autonomy in the language.
So- with all of these good reasons to practice your Hebrew reading skills, here are 5 simple strategies you can use to help ease into reading Hebrew easily and confidently.
1. לאט ,לאט ("LE'AT, LE'AT": "Slowly, Slowly") - Practice reading a bit at a time
Practicing any skill is challenging at first, and the surest way to lose motivation is to overload yourself. Go easy: feel like you can read for half an hour a day? Try twenty minutes. Feel like ten minutes? Start with five. You want to leave your reading session feeling like you put in some good work, but not feeling exhausted. This way, you're more likely to keep coming back to it again and again.
2. Make it a habit
Dedicating a set time and a specific place for practicing your reading- and then sticking to it- is the absolute best way to progress quickly and efficiently. Even if it's only for a little bit at a time- just five or ten minutes each day is infinitely better than no practice at all. Recent research has shown that solid daily habits- even of just a few minutes a day- compound and deliver enormous gains in just a few weeks. You'll be amazed at how quickly you begin to recognize and understand prepositions, conjugations, and recurring structures in the language.It's also very important to bear in mind the value of focus when learning a new language. We all lead very busy lives, and there is always the temptation to get as many things done in as short a time as possible. Trying to learn a new language while also looking at your phone, answering an email on the computer, maybe doing some dishes, or walking the dog, or doing laundry- not the best way to learn, really. It may seem like a productive use of your time, but it's really ineffective when you're trying to learn a language and
aiming for it to actually stick. Instead of trying to read while glancing down at your phone every few minutes, why not set aside some time to really concentrate and grapple with the text? Put any
and all distracting devices away while reading, if you can, and you'll be very pleasantly surprised at how quickly you begin to grasp new structures and words.
3. Make your reading active
People are used to thinking about reading as a more or less passive experience – you sit back in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee or tea, you open a book, you unwind, and you let the author's words flow in. That's my favorite way to read- getting lost in a different world for a few hours is a beautiful experience and a great way to relax. The problem is that when you're learning to read in a new language, relaxation is the last thing you want. In fact, the exact opposite is true- you want to be engaged, actively, in figuring out what you're reading. This is more challenging than just reading passively, but it's also part of the enjoyment of learning a new language through reading. You become an active participant in your own learning experience. One of the best pieces of advice for any language learner who is interested in improving their language through reading is to read with a pencil and an eraser close at hand. Make sure you're using text that you can mark and wear out. A notebook is also a good idea, as well as a physical or an online dictionary. You want to have all of this handy in your study area so that you can look up new words and make notes for yourself about vocabulary and sentence structure without interrupting the flow of your reading. Make little notes in your notebook or in the margins of the text about phrases that are particularly interesting or meaningful to you personally – maybe there are words that are related to your work life, or hobbies, or perhaps just words that you like the sound of. This is how you can engage actively with the language and help make it your own.
4. Long words got you stumped? Look out for "clue letters"
Here's a secret- Hebrew doesn't actually have many long words! Most core Hebrew words are very short- 3 to 5 letters long, tops. Anything longer than that usually means one of 3 things:
1. There’s a preposition letter ("preposition particle") attached to the beginning of the word. 2. There are conjugation, inflection, or plural letters attached to the beginning or end of the word. 3. It’s a word from another language. When you see a suspiciously long Hebrew word, ask yourselfwhat's the actual core word? 1. Start by looking at the beginning of the word. Do you see any of prepositions often are letters These? מ ה כ ו ל ב ש :letters these that attach to a core word in Hebrew, meaning that the long "word" is actually 2 distinct words [core word + preposition particle].
2. Don’t see those letters? How about these: נ ת י א ?If a word starts with these letters, it might be a verb in the future tense. Do you recognize the core word that comes after these letters? Or how about these, found at the end of the word: ם ה ן ו י ?Maybe it's a verb in the past tense. Or these endings: יות, ות, ים ,meaning it might be a plural noun. Try any of these options and see if you can recognize the core word sandwiched somewhere in there.
3. If you still can't recognize the core word, it might actually be a word from another language. Hebrew has many of these. Try sounding the word to yourself out loud using your native language's pronunciation- chances are you'll hit on the meaning after a few tries. This can be both extremely rewarding and hilarious ("What's 'TE-LE-FON…'? Oh! TELEPHONE! DUH!")
5.choose a text that makes sense to you
A lot of people first take up Hebrew learning as part of Hebrew school, religious classes, or other settings in which the texts are chosen for you. These texts are ancient, beautiful, and often hold religious, traditional, and/or moral significance. They are also very, very, VERY hard. While there is value in learning from a textual source that may be meaningful or significant to you on a spiritual level, these sorts of texts are really advanced for the beginning language students – they contain a lot of unusual forms, irregular verb conjugations, archaic sentence structures, poetic syntax, and other characteristics that can make life difficult for you for no reason. Also- let's face it- they're not always very exciting for the unaffiliated language learner.
In other cases, some students attempt to practice Hebrew by reading from designated Hebrew language learning books on their own- the kind that is found in Hebrew language learning schools ("Ulpanim"). This can be a real problem for anyone who is practicing Hebrew as a foreign language level on their own. Many of the Hebrew books that were written with the language student in mind were designed for the student of Hebrew who would be immersed in a Hebrew-speaking environment, like an Ulpan in Israel. These books' language layering and didactic progression assume an immersive language environment that might not be available to the solitary student who isn't living in Israel and who wants to practice reading on their own. Also- and I'm going to be very honest here- many of the texts in the average Hebrew language learning books- even those aimed at Olim (new immigrants to Israel)- can come off as being artificial or wooden. It's too easy for a student working with these books to lose interest- and, therefore, motivation- and just give up on their planned reading practice for the day/week/month. All of this is to say that you're not necessarily gaining anything by trying to work your way through an Ulpan book or a Siddur (a Jewish prayer book).
Instead, my advice would be to choose a book that was designed and tranlsted into simplified and easy Hebrew. There are not many books of this kind, and that is exactly why we at Modern Talk Books have created the Galgal Series. We translate and adapted classic novels into everyday language suitable for Hebrew students.
My last advice is to try deciphering a few lines from a Facebook or Instagram post? Maybe check out something that Gal Gadot has tweeted in Hebrew!
So there you have it! 5 easy ways to improve your Hebrew reading. Using any of these steps will help you get more comfortable with reading Hebrew, and using all of them at once will have you reading confidently and enjoyably in no time! So grab a book / Gal Gadot Instagram post, sit down, take a deep breath, and don't forget to enjoy yourself. You got this!
YA'LLA, BE'HATZLACHA (Good Luck)