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Why Teach Yourself Hebrew ?

Why learn Hebrew?

Hebrew is the formal language in Israel. Someone who intends to live in Israel should learn it if they want to settle, work and be a part of society. Since Israel is an immigrant state, there are large groups of people who speak different languages. So, it may not be essential to know Hebrew to get along, but it depends on the individual's needs. Anyone who wishes to not limit themselves to one group of people, would eventually have to learn Hebrew.


In my many years of teaching, I have met quite a few students who did not have any intention of living in Israel, but still wanted to know the language. As you probably know, Hebrew is unique since it's the language of the bible, the Mishna and may other holy scriptures. Though spoken Hebrew is different than biblical Hebrew in terms of grammar. and sometimes even in vocabulary – a person who knows spoken Hebrew will also be able to read the scriptures.


What are the Hebrew Language Constructs?

Hebrew is a Semitic language that is based on what we call lingual roots. A word's lingual root is usually made of 3 letters (occasionally 4) that construct the verbs, and sometimes the nouns as well. The beauty of it is that it can help a student realize the meaning of the verb relying on other words that share its lingual root. This gives the entire language a broader and deeper meaning.


The Hebrew language also has a very interesting history. Its Alphabet is originated in the Finnic writings. In Luakh Gezer, from the year 1000 BC, there is a Finnic list of what farmers used to do in each moth of the year. In the biblical times, as it is today, Hebrew was used in everyday life, but as of the 2nd century, so it seems, no one was speaking it anymore. The Jewish people scattered around the globe, kept reading the Mishna and bible in Hebrew, praying in Hebrew and even writing in Hebrew, but since it was considered the holy language – not many spoke it outside of the synagogue. During the day-to-day routine, they spoke whatever language spoken in the countries they lived in. In certain places, special Jewish languages were formed, like Ladino in Spain and Yidish in Poland.

At the end of the 19th century, a Zionist Russian Jew named Eliyezer Ben Yehuda arrived in Israel. His philosophy was based on the notion that the Jewish people should return to Israel and only speak Hebrew. At the time, people in Israel did not yet speak Hebrew, and Ben Yehuda had a long struggle ahead of him, since religious groups in Israel claimed that Hebrew is too holy to be spoken in everyday life.


Another issue was that of lack of modernity. Since Hebrew was last used in everyday life hundreds of years prior to that, many new ideas were given words in other languages but not in Hebrew. New words had to be made up, and the language had to be taught to the variety of people who lived in Israel, immigrants that came from very different part of the world and therefore were speaking different languages. And that is exactly what was done.


Ben Yehuda was a Hebrew journalist, so he used his writing to expose people to new words he invented in Hebrew and implement them in everyday speech. He also wrote a big and important dictionary, containing words from the biblical times to the modern times, and to this day he is known as the person who revived the Hebrew language.


So how can this unique language be learnt?


My first recommendation would be an Ulpan. The Ulpan method is like that of Ben Yehuda – you only speak Hebrew. Accumulating research suggest that this is the best way of learning any language, for it allows the learner to understand words depending on context and make faster progress. But what if there is no Ulpan near you, or the timetable does not fit yours?


Fortunately, you can learn Hebrew independently!

For beginners, I would recommend using the excellent learning materials that are available in the market. These usually supply great explanations, examples and practice. It is most important to practice regularly so you wouldn’t forget what you've learnt. Additionally, there are some great mobile apps out there for memorizing new words. For me, personally, mobile apps don’t really work, as I prefer printed content - a book that I could hold in my hands as I read. Another great way of learning Hebrew is listening to songs. Since music stimulates memory functions in the brain, it allows the learner to remember whole sentences quite simply.


 I did exactly that when I learned German – I started out with an intensive 5 days a week course, 4 hours per day. This helped me learn the basics of the language and got me used to practicing it every day. In the course, we would also listen to songs I liked, which made me highly motivated and wanting to understand every word, so I could sing them while I play the guitar.


When I reached a satisfying level of basic German, I felt like making some progress on my own. The problem was I didn't really know how to do it. I started watching German movies and that helped, but I felt like even though I understood the plot – I couldn't repeat the words used in the movie. So, the best way to continue was to read a German book.


When I first started reading German books it was very, very difficult  – the entire vocabulary was new to me. In my everyday life, I never used words like "wig" or "hole" and suddenly I was encountering them for the first time. So, it was challenging, but that was what I was looking for - I wanted to expand m vocabulary beyond that of the language learning programs.


So, I made my own dictionary with the new words I learnt and memorized them by creating associations and constructing new sentences. Slowly but surely, my vocabulary started to expand, and reading became a lot more fun. By the time I reached the middle of a book, I almost didn't have to look up any word in the dictionary, and my language abilities became apparent. Suddenly, I was seeing and grasping nuances I never notices before. Reading the book finally give me the confidence I was looking for.


Therefore, I recommend learning in programs, but also independently. When I learn in programs I am exposed to materials that are exclusive to them, and when I learn independently I could chose to create a vocabulary that is relevant to me and to my life.


As a teacher of 15 years I know that some students need medical terminology, some need legal terminology and some need artistic terminology. A standard learning program could never cover all the terminologies existed, and that is why I recommend advanced students to turn to materials that are specific to their interests.  


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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