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Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew

Many people want to learn how to read Hebrew. In fact, often students prefer knowing how to read rather than how to speak it. The reason for that is that Hebrew is much more than a spoken language of a certain country, it is the language of the Bible, the Mishna and many other holy scriptures. That's why many students learn how to read Hebrew for religious reasons – they want to have to ability to understand these scriptures. 


Usually, Jewish people who live abroad do not need to speak Hebrew in their daily lives, but they do learn how to read it so they can keep the Jewish tradition and customs. I have met many Jewish students who actually do not know how to speak Hebrew, but can sure read it perfectly with diacritics, since they learned how to read the Parasha for their Bar Mitzvah. Some of them understood what they were reading but forgot it since, and some got the overall idea without ever really understanding each word separately. This is perfectly reasonable. These people never used these words in a day-to-day manner, nor did they need to, and words could be easily forgotten when not used regularly.


Another reason for that may be that both the language and general content of the Bible are not meant for day-to-day use. And let me tell you a secret – very often, even Israeli teenagers who read at their Aliya la'Torah do not fully understand the meaning of the words they are reading. Well, they read it anyway. As mentioned earlier, and not coincidentally, they managed to read the Parasha because it was written using diacritics, and that is the most important thing – without the diacritics, they would not be able to read a word they were not previously familiar with. 


The Israeli alphabet is consonantal, which makes it hard to pronounce an unfamiliar word correctly. When reading Hebrew, contrary to reading in languages originated in Latin, the reader cannot be sure how the word is supposed to be pronounced. Therefore, the reader must remember how the words he already knows look like. I call the Hebrew reading method Photographic reading, meaning, the reader must be familiar with how the word is written and pronounced, in addition to knowing what it means. If the reader does not know and recognize the word when reading it, it may be very hard to know how it should be pronounced. So, to be able to read Hebrew, you should be familiar with a lot of words. Contrary to words in other languages - which you can pronounce correctly even without fully understanding their meaning – Hebrew requires previous familiarity with the words. 


So, how can one independently learn how to read Hebrew?


Let's start with the alphabet, that I have written about elaborately in a previous article. In the article, I recommended the way I think is best for independently learning how to read the letters. My recommendation is not to try and memorize letters in a specific order (for instance, the alphabetical order), but to learn them while reading. Let me explain:


Let's say we learn several letters, 7, for instance. We will immediately start using them to read and write. Out of 7 letters many words could be constructed because, as previously noted, the Hebrew alphabet is consonantal, and the words are relatively short when compared to other languages. For example, Let's say I have learned the letters ה, י, מ, נ, ם, ן – and now I can construct many words of them. If we learn the letters and read and write simultaneously, we will be able to not only remember the letters but to also remember how specific words are written – which will  help us read them later on.


Repetition is also very important. Even if a one has learned 7 letters in a day and repeated them endlessly that day, it is not enough. The student must start the next day of practice by repeating these letters before approaching new ones. My recommendation is to learn less letters in the following day, 4 for instance, and to read words that consist of both the new and the former letters. So, the method I recommend for learning is to memorize a few letters every day, and immediately start to construct words consisting of them. This method is well implemented in different Hebrew learning books in Israel. 


Though Hebrew is a consonantal language, it does consist of syllables. The thing is a syllable could be represented by only one letter since underneath it is the diacritic that gives the notion of how it should be pronounced. When learning how to read Hebrew, words should be read slowly, and divided to different optional pronunciations. For example, the word "Matana" is consisted of 6 English letters, since after every consonant there is a vowel. In Hebrew, this is not the case. The Hebrew word would be consisted of only 4 letters, and the sound "A" would only be visually represented by a letter at the end. Why only at the end? It is a rule in the Hebrew language. The sound "a" at the end of a word is usually represented by a letter, mosty by the letter ה. But between the letters "M" and "T" there would be no letter representing the sound "a". Sounds complicated? We will simplify it in a moment.  


As mentioned earlier, the Hebrew alphabet has diacritics – a set of dots and lines meant to give each letter its correct pronunciation by appearing underneath, above or near it. Under the letters "M" and "T" in the word "Matana", is a diacritic that points to "M" pronunciation being "ma" and to "T" pronunciation being "ta". So, allegedly, problem is solved. 

Of course, when you just start to learn Hebrew by reading, you must read it with diacritics, just to understand how it should be pronounced. But that is the last point I would recommend using them. In the following steps, I would recommend reading Hebrew with no diacritics, because most of the written Hebrew in the world is written without them, so it is better to stop relying on them as soon as possible.


But what are the chances of a student memorizing a word and being able to read it without diacritics?  Well, none. But the good news is that one does not need to memorize all the words to be able to read. 


A very important element in reading Hebrew is the element of guessing. The student must start reading the word without its diacritics and simply guess how it should be pronounced. As simple as that, just try and add the vowels on your own. Often, the guess will not only be correct, but the student would recognize the word halfway through reading it.  Nevertheless, diacritics do completely solve the problem of reading. A student who previously studies linguistics and has knowledge of the basic set of diacritics will be able to correctly pronounce a word but will not necessarily know where to place the word's accentuation.


Thus, the best way to know how a certain word is pronounced is to hear someone pronouncing it. Today, many mobile apps allow to both see the written word and hear its pronunciation. There is not one rule regarding the accentuation of Hebrew words, except for one – in words consisted of three syllables, the accentuation will appear in the last of them. 


Some say the Photographic reading I previously referred to has a cultural influence, that Hebrew speakers – specifically Israelis – grasp the general idea of written content faster than do speakers of other languages. This is, as said, due to them being used to reading and recognizing the appearance of words rather than reading according to letters and syllables. The same skill is further used in listening and situations comprehension. In addition, since Hebrew speakers are used to guessing what the next word will be relying on context, characteristics such as daring and risk-taking are usually attributed to them. On the other hand, though confident in their guessing, they do not always guess correctly. This skill also creates, in some cases, a lack of patience and the urge to complete others' sentences before they are done talking. In the German language, for instance, in adjuncts - the verb is located only at the end of the second sentence. For example: "I told you I with you wanted to speak". The listener must hear the entire sentence to determine its meaning. Because, instead of the verb "speak", there could potentially be "marry"' "fight"' "live" or any other verb. For that, listening to people until they are done talking is essential. I have no doubt that language structure affects culture and history, and vice versa – history and culture affect interpersonal communication. But eventually, each person is different, and it is unwise to use this kind of generalization. 


An important method I always recommend when learning the Hebrew alphabet and reading is to not just read but also write. Hebrew consists of two sets of letters – Dfus and Ktav. Some of the letters are pretty similar in both sets, but some are extremely different. Students who do not plan to go visit Israel could learn the Dfus only, for it is the set that is usually used in books and keyboards, but Ktav, on the other hand, is usually used in Ulpans, schools and day-to-day life – such as when writing a groceries list.


For now, though, we will only be discussing the Dfus. When one learns a new letter, I recommend writing it several times as a single letter, and only then use it in a word. I also suggest reading a newspaper and trying to recognize the letter in the text. This practice is great since it allows you to recognize it in different fonts.


For those of you who already know Hebrew quite well and are completely familiar with the alphabet, I recommend to immediately start reading texts that are meant for Hebrew learners and are found in learning books or nonfiction for beginners. The writers of these materials are well aware of the challenges readers may face and make as little use of uncommon vocabulary as possible. This allows the reader to read without having to look for every other word in the dictionary. This also allows the reader to get to know new words moderately, remember how they are written and then recognize them later in the text. That is, in fact. The best way to practice and ameliorate reading skills. I also recommend reading every sentence that was not fully understood twice, because often, when reading again - things become clearer. 


To conclude, teaching yourself how to read the Hebrew language is not a simple task, and it requires patience and consistent practice. That being said, during my time of teaching it I haven’t encountered a single student who was not able to learn it. Eventually, you get used to the challenges. Though the first days of learning may be hard and even confusing, with time and practice you get used to the rules and start reading Hebrew with joy. 


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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