Hebrew, the official language of Israel, is a fascinating language. According to Ethnologue, Hebrew (spelled עברית and pronounced Ivrit in Hebrew itself) counts approximately 4,380,000 people who speak it as a first language and approximately 3,950,000 who speak it as a second language. The language was revived in the late 19th century through the efforts of Hebrew lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and is now referred to as modern Hebrew. In fact, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, can be called the first native speaker of modern Hebrew!
Both its ancient/classical version (used in the Old Testament) and its modern version are studied in the USA. In 2016, according to a report by the Modern Language Association, 9,587 enrollments were reported for classical Hebrew in higher education in the USA and 5,521 were reported for modern Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is also studied in a large number of Hebrew Day Schools in the USA.
The language is written from right to left and is essentially a consonantal script, in which the great majority of the letters seen in Hebrew words represent consonants only, with the vowel sounds having to be supplied by readers, given the context of usage. This kind of alphabet and writing system is also employed in Arabic and is called an abjad. We can see below a chart with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, 5 of which have two versions (a non-word-final version and a word-final version):
Many books in Israel that aim to help kids learn to read employ a slightly modified writing style. In these books, as well as in materials aimed at foreigners starting to learn the language, vowel marks (called niqqudot) are added to indicate the vowel sounds in each word. An example can be seen below in a Linguacious® Hebrew flashcards, in which the version at the top contains the standard writing and the version at the bottom contains the version with the vowel markings:
Readers of this post can get a little taste for what Hebrew sounds like and learn a few words already by trying to repeat these words in Hebrew (and then, of course, showing off to all your friends when you next meet them):
Easy peasy? I guarantee that if you repeat each one at least five times you will not forget them.
Although we will not delve much into the linguistic characteristics of Hebrew in this post, Hebrew grammar is also complex and beautiful, especially for those among us who may speak English as a first (and only) language. Just as an example, Hebrew verbs in the present tense agree in both number and gender with their subject. You heard it right: Hebrew verbs in the present have different forms depending on whether the subject is male or female! What an amazing feature!
Now, despite all the characteristics cited so far that may make Hebrew seem like a really hard language to learn, it is actually a delight to learn and a very approachable language. One of the co-founders of Linguacious™ (and author of this post) lived in Israel for four months in 2015 and came to love the culture and language, also finding that Israelis love it when they hear foreigners speaking in Hebrew. If any of our readers decide to learn Hebrew, you can rest assured you will have plenty of opportunities to practice in Israel and you will meet very friendly ears!
To talk about a little bit more about the Hebrew language, how both adults and kids can succeed in learning this beautiful and exotic language, and what kind of communities exist online that can support learners of Hebrew, Linguacious™ talked with Dee Hall.
Interview with Dee Hall, from Learning Modern Hebrew Together
Dee Hall is a passionate learner and proponent of Hebrew education, as well as the administrator of several Facebook groups that support learners of Hebrew, including Learning Modern Hebrew Together , Hebrew4Life, The Joy of Biblical Hebrew and בואו נדבר עברית.
Victor: שׁלום (Shalom), Dee! Thank you so much for making the time to talk to us at Linguacious™ about the Hebrew language, its connection to Judaism, and to offer some tips for people who are either about to start or recently began learning this amazing language that is Hebrew. To kick things off, can you tell us how long you have been studying Hebrew and how you came to start learning the language?
Dee: First, I want to say how humbled and honored I am that you would even want to interview me. Thank you for the opportunity.
Actually, it’s interesting. The way I came to learn Hebrew was kind of “off the cuff”, really. I started learning about 4 years ago and I started to learn Hebrew strictly for the purpose of understanding the Bible in its original language and context. However, when I started listening to people speaking Sephardic Hebrew (my area of concentration) and singing Hebrew I was enamored by how it sounds and even the letters themselves fascinated me. I saw the depth and dimension to this language and could not resist! The uniqueness of this language is the fact that even each letter has a meaning. So I decided this was the language for me to learn.
Victor: I can’t blame you, Dee! This mysticism that is associated with Hebrew letters and the language itself is certainly not something most of us are used to and is indeed something that makes Hebrew stand out from most other languages. It seems like you had quite the motivation to tackle learning Hebrew. Could you explain a little more what you mean by “each letter has a meaning” in Hebrew?
Dee: Sure, I'd be happy to! In Hebrew, each letter has a meaning that in turn brings life to a word. This started in ancient Hebrew when the letters were actually pictographs and the aleph (first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) actually had quite a different look and stood for an ox or ox head. That has however been adjusted through the centuries as the language evolved, almost like one can see for many of the Chinese characters.
For example, the word אב (pronounced ahv), means "father." The letter aleph א means “head or leader” and the letter veit (beit) ב means “house”. We therefore get the word father, which denotes “the head of the house” or “leader in the home.”
Victor: Wow, that is truly fascinating! Many people I know would be a little afraid, so to speak, to learn Hebrew. As we know, Hebrew is a very different language from the languages the majority of learners in the US educational system are accustomed to (i.e., Spanish, French, German, etc). For example, differently from the aforementioned languages and similarly to Arabic, the Hebrew writing system is an abjad, in which each symbol stands for a consonant, with readers having to supply the “missing” vowels on their own. In addition, some of the consonant sounds in Hebrew, such as ר vs. ח\כ\ך can be quite intimidating and hard to pronounce correctly. Can you tell us more about how you tackled learning the language at the beginning and whether your strategy has changed along the years?
Dee: I was not at all afraid, really, and saw it as a challenge. I figured it was definitely doable, otherwise no one would be speaking, reading or writing Hebrew... (laugh). I decided to start at a kindergarten level and approached it just how we start learning our first language in school. I simply chose which dialect I wanted to learn and decided that the Modern Sephardic Hebrew (the pronunciation considered standard in Israel) was it. That was where my heart was and from there I began my journey. I started writing my Aleph Bet (i.e., the Hebrew alphabet) over and over until I recognized the letters and their sounds. I also downloaded apps on my phone to help with pronunciation. I wrote words and studied grammar rules online.
Another thing I did was I found a shul (Hebrew school) located in a Messianic Jewish congregation. I immersed myself in Hebrew. I then quickly found that Biblical Hebrew was so much different than the Modern language. So while I enjoyed shul and it helped me out with being exposed to the language more, if you are learning Modern Hebrew for the sake of everyday conversation, I do not recommend going to a synagogue for learning Modern Hebrew. I do, however, recommend going to learn the Jewish culture. You learn how to speak best when you are in the midst of the culture it is spoken in.
One of the best steps I took though was I started my own learning group on FB. It has now grown to over 4,000 members and has a few sister pages that have branched off from it. I have a beginner FB page called Hebrew4Life, an advanced FB page called בואו נדבר עברית (which means “let's speak Hebrew”) for those looking to improve conversational skills and a biblical FB page called The Joy of Biblical Hebrew. I have a page for pretty much every learning level. I manage those FB pages and help out on other Hebrew pages around Facebook as well.
I'm learning that some people just want to speak Hebrew, but they don't necessarily care about getting the sound for the letter ר (resh) correct...or they just want to read Hebrew and are not concerned about being able to speak it….I am very much a proponent of learning the entire language and not just in part…..and I'm a stickler! I would not change anything about the way I have learned or am even still learning. I am enjoying myself and this is a journey, not a destination.
Victor: I really admire how dedicated and disciplined you seem to be with learning Hebrew and congratulate you on that, Dee. It’s interesting when you say that you are a proponent of learning the entire language and not just part of it. We recently published an article called Are we Raising Half-Baked Multilinguals? in our blog that deals exactly with this question of the value of learning all four skills in a language (reading, writing, listening, speaking). Now, I have a question for you. Imagine someone, be it a child or an adult, simply wants to engage with others in the culture when traveling and have a good time with the language. Why would they need to master all four skills? Wouldn’t being able to speak and understand the language when spoken to them be the best bang for their buck, linguistically speaking?
Dee: Good question! I think if you start out learning any language it it’s best to start with speaking and listening right away… you need to repeat those new words out loud over and over again! Just like the way we all learn before we enter kindergarten. Think about it. We learn to speak way before we go to school..we speak and listen… Our environment is filled with these sounds and words that take on their meaning based on our wants, needs and our surroundings. Words are emotional creatures and it’s how we make attachments to things.
We know what a cat is, let's say, long before we go to school…. Because we have a word to go with the picture. We not only see a picture but have even made an emotional connection with it. Once you get to school you learn how to spell the word cat and read it. However, as adults learning a new foreign language, we already have those words ingrained in us in our native language. So in order to learn a new language, say as a 40-year old, it’s much harder (not impossible though!) because חתול / chatool (the Hebrew word for "cat") doesn't mean cat to us. It means cat in Hebrew to us. So we go through this translation in our own head from chatool to cat rather than just having it be second nature. What I’m trying to say is…. to teach a child a language is much different than to teach a full grown adult something but In learning all the language skills available it helps to make the connection stronger in our brains and much better. To hear it, and see it and say it is more useful than just learning one proponent. It helps strengthen the connection.
I will also say to delve into the culture of the language you are learning, will help even on another level completely. Truly, it brings about a new understanding and emotional attachment to the words that really plants it down deep in your soul and you start to really feel the language and it becomes part of who you are…. As you can see, I really am passionate about this.
Victor: Passion, or this strong intrinsic motivation as we would call in Applied Linguistics, is a strong predictor of language learning success, so all the power to that! Now, what attracts you the most to study Hebrew and to help others learn Hebrew as well?
Dee: I find it to be a very deep, rich, fascinating, language. Music to my ears! Hebrew, while an original semitic language, also has influences from all over the world such as Spanish, German, Polish, Arabic, Aramaic and even English, which make up the modern Hebrew language spoken today. The grammar is amazing and intense...which is also intriguing. A basic example is the fact that the form of verbs differ in Hebrew depending on whether the subject of the sentence is male or female, and there are also two different forms of “you” depending on whether you are speaking to a male or female person. This basic characteristic of Hebrew grammar is something that does not happen in English, Spanish, German, and many other languages.
Teaching Hebrew started out with me really just wanting to hone my own Hebrew skills and the best way to learn is to teach. However, helping others learn Hebrew has become a passion. To see people understand it and enjoy it brings me so much joy. I am in the process of writing a children's Hebrew book on the Aleph Bet and I plan on teaching Hebrew at our local Community College. Like I said, it's my joy.
Victor: That’s a great passion and hobby to have, Dee! You are not only deriving all this satisfaction from learning the language but you also derive satisfaction from helping others learn it. Thank you for the FB communities you have created and for your willingness to help others also become passionate about learning Hebrew. Our world could certainly benefit from having more language learners like you, who are so willing to motivate others as well. Maybe that would help solve the current language crisis in the USA, as I would call it, in which only 20% of K-12 students in the country are enrolled in a foreign language course, for example. In the case of Hebrew, in terms of enrollment in institutions of higher education, only 0.004% of those students enrolled in a foreign language class in 2016 were studying Hebrew (5,521 out of 1,417,921 students).I know we have some great initiatives happening in the US right now to foster language learning, such as the very rapid increase of dual language schools and the adoption of the Seal of Biliteracy (upcoming post) by over 32 states in the USA, but certainly much more needs to be done to guarantee we get people (especially the young ones) passionate about learning other languages from a young age.
In light of that, what resources would you recommend for people who want to start getting a taste of Hebrew? Also, what “mistakes” should they avoid at the beginning, in your opinion?
Dee: That's a great question! Well, the resources I would recommend depend on if people are interested in learning Modern or Biblical Hebrew. There is an enormous amount of resources out there, but very few that are on point and practical. Readers can find t a list of recommendations at the bottom of this post for both Modern and Biblical Hebrew for those interested.
Mistakes to be avoided in the beginning:
Going too fast. Take your time, learn something completely, and then move on to the next thing. Each skill builds on the previous skill learned. Take your time and grasp each concept.
Learning from too many different sources. One or two really good ones is plenty. Too much input will mean overload and you will quit! DON’T QUIT!
Not using what you are learning. Use what you are learning in writing and speaking. Don't just choose to learn to speak or read. In order to learn properly do both but speak MORE than anything (well, if you are learning Modern Hebrew, that is).
Not using ALL your senses to learn. Listen to TV shows, and some Modern music (I recommend Mizrachi and I know you like Amir Dadon, Victor), documentaries, etc…. Repeat what you hear (be a parrot!). Write some new words down (in Hebrew itself instead of using transliteration through the Roman alphabet). Also, the more you hear, the more you get the feel of the language, its intonation and its flow.
Doing it alone. Find a language learning buddy….it's really great fun, actually!
Last but not least, DON'T BE AFRAID OF MAKING MISTAKES! Making mistakes is how we learn, so don't be afraid, accept the correction, take what you learned and move forward.
Victor: Awesome tips, Dee. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and we truly hope that more and more people will develop an interest for learning Hebrew!
Dee: Toda raba ("Thank you" in Hebrew), Victor. It’s been a pleasure and I also hope to see more and more people learning Hebrew. Thank you guys at Linguacious™ as well for having your vocabulary flashcard games in Hebrew and for contributing to this goal of getting more people, especially the younger ones excited about learning Hebrew.
Some sites and resources that Dee believes are invaluable in learning Hebrew (in Dee’s words):
1 - This site helped me in the beginning to learn new words and grammar rules. Such great information on here:
2 - Ruti Yudovich is a really great teacher of Hebrew and her series of books are a great way to really learn and practice real conversational Hebrew:
3 - If you are a Christian and want to learn Hebrew this next site is the most invaluable sites around and John the owner is a real gem.
4 - If you want to learn with a teacher, I highly recommend Nir Yakuti, who is an Israeli who saw how expensive some Hebrew schools were and decided to change that. He is now my teacher and I take classes with him every Sunday. It’s simply a joy:
And of course, I recommend learning on interactive pages, especially on Facebook.
Here are the pages I recommend:
5 - Learning Modern Hebrew Together - this is a mixed group of people, with some who just started learning and some advanced. We have quite a few Israelis on our page that are teaching and I have created lots of teaching tools as well and it is quite an active community. This is where you come to ask questions and share what you are learning.
6 - Hebrew4Life - this is very basic teachings only. Hebrew Aleph Bet, colors, numbers, etc….nothing big. Only for those who feel overwhelmed on the other pages with so many different things going on.
7 - Bo-u Nedeber Ivrit-בואו נדבר עברית-
This is an up and coming group. Trying to get more advanced people involved here because this is for practicing Hebrew conversational skills.
8 - The Joy of Biblical Hebrew for those looking for more Biblical/religious teachings on Hebrew this was the first sister page I created. Lots of good teachings on there.
What is YOUR experience learning Hebrew? What are your thoughts about the language? Would you like to learn Hebrew one day? Leave a comment in the box below to start a conversation with other readers!
Author: Victor D. O. Santos, PhD
Language Learning and Assessment expert and co-founder of Linguacious™