Best Way to Learn Hebrew
As a teacher of Hebrew for the last 15 years, I have accumulated different methods and tips that make learning a lot more fun, easy and efficient. There are a few challenges that arise when learning Hebrew though, and I am about to simplify them for you:
First Challenge – Reading Hebrew
In written Hebrew there is no use of vowels, so a certain word could potentially be pronounced in different ways. To know how a certain word should be pronounced, a set of diacritics is used – dots and lines that appear near, above or under a letter, and indicate which sound should be used when reading it. This is all great, but the problem is diacritics are only used in the bible, children's books, and poetry. So, a student that wishes to learn a new word cannot be sure of its correct pronunciation if diacritics are absent.
While other languages allow new students to learn independently from the very beginning, Hebrew learning is very much dependent on either diacritics or someone who speaks it to confirm the words' correct pronunciation. Thus, I recommend starting using learning books. In these books, every word that appears for the first time always has diacritics attached to it so the learner can be sure of its correct pronunciation. Further along the way, the word usually appears without it, but at this point the learner is already familiar with it and able to correctly pronounce it - even without diacritics. I warmly recommend not to use only books that use diacritics, since written Hebrew usually has none and it could make the student dependent on them.
Today, many great mobile apps allow you to both see and hear the right pronunciation of a word in Hebrew. That is a great way of learning. In addition, I recommend capturing the words appearance in your mind and later try to read it out loud without using diacritics.
Second challenge – Writing In Hebrew
The Hebrew language consists of some different letters that sound the same. The reason for that is that people who spoke ancient Hebrew used to pronounce them differently than the way people who speak modern Hebrew do. For instance, the letter Allef sounds like "a" and the letter Ayin also sounds like "a". the difference is that Ayin sound is supposed to come out from deeper in the throat. Today, both letters are pronounced similarly, so that there is no way of telling which one of them is present in certain words. There are a few of these similarities in Hebrew, like the letters Tav and Tet – In modern Hebrew both sound like a "T". But in the ancient times, Tet would sound like "th" and it was obvious whether to use it or use Tav instead. It is not the case nowadays, which makes it hard for Hebrew learners to tell the difference.
This confusion is not unique to Hebrew learners – many Israelis also get confused, and only people who read a lot know exactly how every word is spelled.
Unfortunately, there is no magic solution for this issue, and the only way to overcome it is by practicing.
The recommended practice is to read a sentence or a full paragraph of the learning materials or of a simple Hebrew book, and record it. The next step would be to hear the sentence and then write it down. Then, you can compare the sentence you've written with the original one and see how well you spelled it. Whatever words you spelled incorrectly - you would then be able to memorize and implement the correct way.
Third challenge – Hebrew Hearing Comprehension
This is a challenge that is not unique to the Hebrew language.
Whenever we learn words by reading them, it's easy to understand where they start and where they end. Contrary to that, when we learn words by hearing people speaking, often it is hard to distinguish one word from. So, learners sometimes feel like they do not understand words they actually know. For example, often learners would listen to a song in Hebrew feeling like they do not recognize any of the words, just to find out they know most of them when reading the lyrics later on.
To deal with this difficulty, I suggest listening to songs in a 75% speed rather than a 100%. In most mobile apps today, it is possible to set the streaming speed. Once you reduce the speed of a song or conversation, it becomes easier to distinguish words from one another and recognize the words you know. Yet, after listening to the song in reduced speed, I recommend listening to it again in normal speed to get used to the way the words normally sound.
Another issue with hearing comprehension is that of slang and intentionally incorrect pronunciation of words. Nowadays, different websites offer a list of Hebrew slang words, and there are even videos of Israeli celebrities explaining Hebrew slang. Though I would not recommend learning slang words in the beginning, it is an important thing to know when learning a language and before you try to learn it by listening to people speaking it in their everyday life.
An interesting fact about the Hebrew slang – most of it comes from Arabic, Russian and English. For example, the word "Achla" that means "great" in Hebrew is originated in Arabic and its original meaning is "Sweetest".
Fourth challenge – Learning to Speak Hebrew
And now, the cream-de-la-cream of all challenges – speaking.
Many times, I've heard students telling me they're trying their hardest to speak to other people, but the minute these people recognize an accent or some kind of difficulty speaking they immediately want to switch to speaking English. Of course, when information must be quickly understood it is essential, but it does not allow learners to practice their speaking skills. What I suggest when encountering this issue is to simply insist on speaking Hebrew. Of course, ideally the people around you would not know English, but it is uncommon when in Israel.
Thus, I recommend my students to practice at home as well – with themselves. Simply waking up in the morning and speaking their thoughts out loud in Hebrew - "I am now eating yogurt, then I will brush my teeth and head of to work". It is a great way of realizing what you know and do not know how to express in Hebrew.
The most important tip of all
Try thinking in Hebrew.
Try constructing sentences using the words you already know, and do not stop the flow only because you're missing a word. Try to "walk around" the point and explain it in a different way. Imagine that your conversation partner does not know English and therefore you simply must explain whatever it is you need to in Hebrew.
Many beginning students try to be as accurate as possible when talking and that is an obstacle. For example, you want to say: "I'm frustrated". But the word frustrated – "Metuskal" is not very common in day-to-day language and most chances are you've never encountered it before. Instead of using the exact word of "Metuskal", you could say "there is something I wanted to do but can't, that is why I am very sad". When you start using the words you know to express anything, your speaking flow would be a lot better as you would not stop to look for the exact words.
Creating a Hebrew Eenvironment
First of all, I highly recommend learning Hebrew in an Ulpan or a certain program. It is best to start with a teacher or a small group since language learning becomes easier and more efficient when immediately practiced. Language is not theoretical, but practical knowledge, and for that it is essential to start using it immediately. Start listening to Hebrew songs even if you don’t understand it all. Start watching Hebrew movies and series with subtitles, so Hebrew is everywhere around you.
This article was written by Ira Yospa, a Hebrew teacher for adults, Senior instructor for Hebrew teachers and a developer of Hebrew studying materials.