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How to Read Hebrew ?

As a Hebrew teacher I get asked by students over and over, why is Hebrew so difficult when it comes to reading. The truth is that the written Hebrew language has some unique characteristics that make reading a complex and challenging experience for a non-native Hebrew reader.


In the next article I will address various challenges that Hebrew students encounter while trying to read in Hebrew. Some will concern beginner students and some others will be directed to more advanced students. In this article I will share some of my recommendations on how to overcome these challenges. 


First Let's start with some background on the Hebrew alphabet. Researchers believe that  ancient Hebrew script came from the Phoenician script and this is why Hebrew is written from right to left. The Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters with an additional five conditional forms of a grapheme that come at the end of a word. The Hebrew script consists of consonants only. Each letter represents one or more consonants and a small group of letters may also represent vowels. 

This unique characteristic of the Hebrew script makes it difficult for a student to pronounce words he does not know. An accurate representation of the letter is only possible through the punctuation system - a collection of dots and lines that appear below, next to, inside or above the letter. They make it possible for a reader to pronounce it correctly.


Here are some examples of these cases in the Hebrew script:

  • The letter ב׳ can be heard as B or as V

  • The letter ש׳ can be heard as SH or as S

  • The letter א׳ can be heard as the vowels A, I, O, U, E

  • The letter ו׳, which represents the consonant V, is also used as vowels O, U. 

Moreover, in Hebrew there are some unique words that consist of one letter only. These words will never appear alone in writing; they will always be conceded to another word. This phenomenon can make reading difficult and confusing for someone who is not familiar yet with the language and the rules of written Hebrew. 


As I see it, the main difficulty in reading modern Hebrew is the absence of punctuation signs in everyday writing. The punctuation signs only appear in ancient books such as the Bible, children's books or in poetry. Therefore a new student who wants to read everyday Hebrew must get used to reading without the use of punctuation signs. This is not an easy task for someone who was taught to read using punctuation signs.


Another phenomenon that occurs in the Hebrew script is the duplication of sounds.

Often two different letters have the same sound. This can lead to when writing in Hebrew. 

For example, the letters ת׳ and ט׳, both represent the sound T in modern Hebrew. This phenomenon of duplicated sounds occurred due to the transformation of ancient Hebrew into a modern language. In the past the letter ט׳ did indeed represent the sound T, while the letter ת׳ represented the sound TH. Each letter sounded differently. Today the TH sound has disappeared from modern Hebrew and the letter ת׳ sounds exactly the same as the letter ט׳ in spoken Hebrew.


Another interesting phenomenon in written Hebrew is the use of emphasis. Certain letters gain emphasis when appearing at the beginning of a word, while they lose the emphasis when used at the middle or end of a word. For example the Hebrew letter פ׳ at the beginning of a word will always sound like P. In the middle of a word it will sound like P or F, and at the end of a word it will always sound like an F. Actually, there is no word in Hebrew that starts with the sound F or ends with the sound P. Actually, there are some other sounds that do not exist in the Hebrew language: for example the sound of the letter J in the name John. 


Hebrew words are generally quite short which is a fact that pleases many students. I tell my students that when coming across a long word they don't understand - they should try and guess which “foreign” word it is. These can be words such as television, university, theater or theory which migrated from other languages into the everyday Hebrew vocabulary. Guessing and making mistakes is a very important skill for those who are starting to read Hebrew or any other language. 


For more advanced students, who know the letters, who can read full sentences and are familiar with present, past and future tenses, the great challenge will usually be to find suitable reading materials for their reading skills. At this point many students turn to “normal” native Hebrew books and unfortunately find out that these books are not at all compatible with their Hebrew reading level. 


The gap between spoken and written Hebrew is so large that even for someone who mastered Hebrew speaking, reading can be a totally different experience. Sadly there are almost no reading materials appropriate for advanced Hebrew students. 


During my years of teaching I have seen many cases of discouraged students, who ultimately give up on reading Hebrew. This of course has nothing to do with the student’s knowledge or desire to learn. The lack of materials is the reason I decided to translate “Around the World in 80 Days” into accessible, simple and clear Hebrew - especially for Hebrew students. “Around the World in 80 Days” was the first book ever translated into modern Hebrew by Eliezer Ben Yhuda, and I thought it is also a great fit for a simplified Hebrew novel


My recommendation would be for  students to read only two or three pages a day. In addition to that I would also recommend writing down the new words they encounter while reading. 


It is better to learn a few words each day and try using them rather than memorizing a large amount of words without  practicing them. The act of writing down the unrecognized words will help the student remember them for the next time he encounters them.


The “difficult” words throughout the book are punctuated and explained in a footnote. At the end of the book the reader can find a dictionary with all the explained words. This dictionary does not provide a translation of the words, but refers to a page where their punctuation signs and explanation appears. In this way the student does not stop learning and develops his associative memory by reading the word in the context of the plot.


The process of adapting this book was motivated by the intention to serve as a tool to help Hebrew learners bridge the gap between Spoken and Written modern Hebrew. It was designed in such a way that the reader accumulates new vocabulary as he reads. New words are no longer an obstacle for him. 


This way a non-native reader can finally enjoy both the reading process and the plot of the story without the usual frustration. Little by little the spoken words begin to be replaced by the words of the written language. The process is carried out very gradually and allows students to get used to new words they encounter. Although these words are not used in everyday spoken language they will definitely appear in regular Hebrew literature and media. My goal in adapting such a book was to strengthen student's motivation, enrich their vocabulary and allow them a gateway towards the world of Hebrew literature. 


I would recommend reading the book continuously and not waiting more than a day or two between readings. Language studies are very similar to musical studies. When I first started playing guitar I was told that it was better to play even fifteen minutes every day rather than playing three hours on the weekend.This is also my recommendation in the context of all language skills. Whether it is reading, writing, listening or speaking, I recommend practicing it regularly.


The process of learning the language is a fascinating, interesting and sometimes challenging journey. I do not recommend going through this entire journey alone, but joining a Ulpan or small study groups. Even if you are starting to read a book, I recommend starting together with another student - meeting and reading together, talking about the new words and dwelling on special structures.


Good Luck!


This article was written by Ira Yospa, a Hebrew teacher for adults, Senior instructor for Hebrew teachers and a developer of Hebrew studying materials.


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