Hebrew is a true delight of a language to take on as an English speaker.
The language is steeped in history, linguistic idiosyncrasies and grammatical complexity. To any ambitious polyglot it presents a unique challenge. So, how hard is Hebrew to learn?
The answer is that Hebrew is quite tricky, especially in the areas of grammar, in particular how verb roots fit into binyanim.
- Vocabulary – Despite attempts by the local language institutions in Israel to de-English Hebrew, there are still a lot of English loan words to help you build vocabulary fast. A lot of the nouns come from verb roots so once you master this concept you can build new words quicker. Also, if you are familiar with Arabic, Russian, German or Polish you will have an advantage with new forms and vocabulary.
- Grammar – The area to keep an eye on with Hebrew grammar is the binyanim. All verbs have a root that fit into one of these 7 binyanim depending on the form of the verb you wish to use. They change the root in a very particular way. So, on top of learning changes for subject, tense, gender and plurality, you also have to add the complexity of these binyanim changes. That being said, once understood the rules are quite logical and can be appealing to some styles of language learner.
- Speaking/Listening – You are going to have some problems with the chet and the chaf sounds along with the r, p, t and k. But, after some practice you will improve fast. There are no tones and stress rules are pretty straight forward so with pronunciation, have heart, its not too bad.
- Writing/Reading – The writing system runs right to left, which is of course different to English. But this is easier to overcome than you might first have thought. The alphabet isn’t too complex compared with Chinese or Japanese and you should be reading within a week and writing within two.
So, after that brief overview, let’s dive in further.
So, how hard is Hebrew to learn really?
In Hebrew, a lot of the core basic vocabulary comes from the Bible or the Babylonian Talmud. The spoken use of Hebrew stopped for a few centuries, and was later reintroduced.
This has meant that a lot of the old Hebrew wasn’t well suited for the modern world. So, they used a lot of the existing roots to form new vocabulary.
However, they also took a lot of vocabulary from other languages, most notably from Arabic, Yiddish, German, Polish and Russian. In terms of English, the Academy of Hebrew Language in Israel attempts to de-English the language, but despite that many English loan words are commonly used.
Basic English Loan Words
- Evolution – אבולוציה – evolútsya
- Boomerang – בומרנג – bumerang
- Dictator – דיקטטור – diktator
- Whiskey – ויסקי – víski
- Laptop – לפטופ – laptop
- Plastic – פלסטיק – plástik
- Cricket – קריקט – kriket
In order to understand the grammar of a language it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.
- The apple is red — Ha Tapuach adom — The be verb has been omitted from the sentence. The article ha has been used.
- It is John’s apple — Ze Ha Tapuach shel John — Shel denotes possession.
- I give John the apple — Ani noten Le John et Ha Tapuach — Le asks like a preposition and et is the direct object particle.
- We give him the apple — Anachnu notnim Lo et Ha Tapuach — Both the subject and verb have changed.
- He gives it to John — Hu noten et ze Le John
- He doesn’t give it to John — Hu lo noten et ze Le John — use of the particle lo to denote a negative
- She gives it to him — Hi notenet et ze lo — change of subject and verb form for female
- I gave John the apple — Ani Natati Le John et Ha Tapuach — The verb has kept the consonant root, but changed to past simple.
- I must give it to him — Ani chayav latet et ze lo — there is a new auxilliary and the root for give has changed significantly
- I want to give it to her — Ani rotze latet et ze la
The language deconstruction method is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good base for understanding Hebrew. It operates under the 80:20 Pareto principle, in that 80% of your languages needs are covered by 20% of the functional language.
- Word Order – Hebrew grammar has a subject-verb-object word order. But beware that the verb be doesn’t always work in this fashion. Sentences like John is red, are spoken as John red — noun + adjective.
- Articles – In Hebrew, you use the definite article ha for both singular and plural.
- Pronouns – The pronoun doesn’t show the gender, rather you can see the gender from the adjective or noun which is attached to the pronoun.
- Nouns – In Hebrew the nouns have either a male of female gender. The verbs and adjectives associated with said noun take the same gender. There are rules for the suffix of the nouns depending on the gender which are worth learning. In terms of plurals, they add certain suffixes, however there are a lot of irregular changes which you are just going to have to memorise. Nouns are often formed from verb roots. See the verb section below for more on verb roots as this is very complicated to understand. Also, there is only one case, for direct objects.
- Prepositions – Many prepositions are attached directly to the word they go before but other prepositions are separate words. There are lots of prepositions and they function much like in English.
- Adjectives – These are pretty simple, they follow the noun and agree in terms of plurality and gender.
- Verbs – For Hebrew, verbs can be the trickiest part to understand, learn and then use. All verbs will have a root, expressed as three consonants e.g. k-t-v. In this example, this root embodies the idea of writing. This verb root can be placed into 1 of 7 binyanim, but often not all. Each binyan has a loose function – simple, intensified, causative, reflexive, then the passive of simple, intensified and causative. Remember though, a verb root won’t always fit all 7 binyanim. Once you have worked out which binyanim to use, you then have to change the verb for tense, subject, and gender. Also, bear in mind that some verbs are regular and follow the basic rules of binyanim and other do not. This is incredibly complicated for anyone just starting out in Hebrew. For more information this guide is pretty good at summarised the concept.
- Auxiliary and modal verbs – you add the aux before the main verb and change the root of the main verb.
- Be – In Hebrew the be verb is very often omitted from the sentence.
- Have – to express the meaning of have you can use the form yesh le- which translates roughly as there is to.
- Negatives – The particle lo is used to negate a verb, adjective or noun.
- Questions – There are many question words to be learnt but if the answer is yes/no then you only need go up with your intonation on a statement.
- Direct/indirect objects – In Hebrew, direct objects and indirect objects have preposition and particle markers so the order isn’t fixed.
Hebrew has 30 phonemes made up of 24 consonant sounds and 6 vowel sounds. Hebrew isn’t a tonal language and stress is usually applied to the end syllable unless it is a foreign word and then the stress is applied to the first syllable.
English speakers usually have issues pronouncing the chet and the chaf sounds usually producing something similar to a h. The r sounds is also quite tricky. This needs to produced in the throat rather than with the tongue. English speakers also aspirate the p, t and k sounds which are not aspirated in Hebrew.
The pronunciation of Hebrew is usually categorised into two styles, oriental and non oriental. The main difference being in the pronunciation of ayin, het and resh.
- Consonants IPA – m, k, j, p, n, t, l, s, ŋ, h, f, t̠ʃ, ʔ, ʃ, ts, x, ʁ, p͉, k͉, t͉, s͉, t̠ʃ͉, ʃ͉, f͉.
- Vowels IPA – a, o, ɛ, ɪ, ʊ, ə̆.
Hebrew is written using an alphabet which was used around 3000 years ago. Much of the language has of course changed but the Modern Hebrew has roots in early Aramaic.
The Hebrew alphabet has only 22 letters, all of which are consonants. There is a system for vowels which is a combination of symbols and diacritics which can be positioned above, below and inside the consonants. But, it is very often not included in the writing you see. Basically, new learners of Hebrew learn to read and write without the vowels.
My hovercraft is full of eels – הרחפת שלי מלאה בצלופחים
- The script is written from right to left.
- There are 22 consonant letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
- There are 5 vowel markers in Hebrew but these are usually not included in Hebrew writing.
Why Learn Hebrew?
As a language, Hebrew is uniquely fascinating. There are many many reasons to study this language, what follows are just three of my most important.
- The complex history of the language. To put it simply, Hebrew was the language of the Bible. But, there was a period of around 2000 years where nobody spoke it. Then, a hundred or so years ago, it came back into existence as a spoken language. Few languages can make anything similar to this type of claim. The way that ancient Hebrew has been mapped onto the modern world is, in part, one of the most quirky and fascinating things about the language and to see how they use old vocabulary and forms and map them onto modern concepts is great.
- The importance of Hebrew in modern Israel. The country of Israel has had a tumultuous history and Hebrew language, as one of the cornerstones of Israeli culture, cannot be understated. Hebrew is the language of one of the world fastest growing and tech savviest nations on the planet. Learning just a little Hebrew gives you an obvious advantage if you are to spend any amount of time in the country.
- Cultural depth. Israel is a cultural powerhouse with the music, food and literature. But for the sake of this argument, lets just look at the sense of humour. Having encountered such adversity over the millennia the Jewish people have developed one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic forms of humour. Learning Hebrew allows you a better understanding of much of the root of that humour.
But, why stop there. Lets explore the question further.
Hebrew is a Afro-Asiatic language. Modern Hebrew is the official language of Israel. It is also commonly spoken in Jewish communities around the world. Hebrew is spoken by 8.3 million people in Israel and around 1 million outside of Israel. It is regulated by the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem.
Travel, Culture, History and Economy
Israel is a country in West Asia. It borders Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan to the east, the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the east and west, and Egypt to the southwest. The economic and tech centre of the country is the city of Tel Aviv, while the government and capital can be found in Jerusalem.
The Land of Israel has a long history and is said to be the birth place of the Jewish people. The region has played host to many civilisations and empires over the years. Some notable examples include the Romans, the Arab empires, the Muslims, Christian crusaders, the Ottomans and the British. Jewish Zionism developed significantly in the late 1800s and following WW1 the British committed to a Jewish homeland. Despite that, it wasn’t until 1948 that Israel claimed independence and the first Jewish state was actually created. Since then Israel has been involved in many wars with the surrounding Arab states and conflict continues to be a part of Israeli to this day.
Israel is easily the most advanced economy in the region and the local people are both well educated and highly skilled. The region is pretty limited in terms of natural resources yet they have managed to become self sufficient in basic of agriculture. Some of the leading exports industries are in the manufacture of machinery, tech software, chemicals and textiles. The technology sector has been booming in recent years and many international tech giants have invested heavily in local R&D centres in the country.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a relative comparison of world languages including Hebrew.
They rate Hebrew as a category 4 language along with languages like Bosnian, Russian and Urdu. They believe it would take 44 weeks (1100 hours) to achieve a L3 proficiency in speaking and reading.
In attempting to learn anything it is best to first deconstruct the problem and then break down the learning task into manageable chunks. It is with this in mind that I recommend the following resources to help you in learning Hebrew.
- Fluent Forever or Anki – The Fluent Forever method details exactly how to use spaced repetition to quickly build functional vocabulary and learn common grammar rules.
- italki.com – Italki gives you access to very cheap video chat lesson with teachers from around the world, dive straight in.
- lang-8.com – Lang 8 allows you to input writing and have it corrected for free in a matter of hours. This community is very helpful and is a great way to practice online.