Hebrew Language: Complete Guide

Updated: 15. Aug, 2022

Hebrew has a fascinating history and is an old language that is nevertheless lovely and contemporary. It is a wonderful example of a classical language restored as a living language. Furthermore, this language is over 3,000-year-old and has an uninterrupted literary heritage.

Along with Arabic, Hebrew is one of the official languages of the State of Israel. Hebrew is a language used in Israel and many Jewish communities worldwide. Hebrew speakers are present in countries with sizable Jewish populations, such as the USA (where there are more than 5 million Jews), France (where there are over 490,000 Jews), and Canada (approximately 375,000 Jews).

The Hebrew used in the Bible is referred to as Classical or Biblical Hebrew; Aramaic is the second language used in the Bible.

It will not be simple to learn a new language, and Hebrew is no exemption. Hebrew study might be challenging, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. Compared to English, there are few parallels in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and composition. This is often what deters English speakers from studying Hebrew. However, knowing that Hebrew word order is close to English word order could give you some reassurance.

This article will examine all you need to know about Hebrew and the best way to learn it. 

Hebrew Alphabet

Learning and memorizing the Hebrew letters is the first step to learning the Hebrew alphabet. Although the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t appear or sound like typical European languages, Arabic speakers can find them more familiar and simpler to understand.

The Hebrew translation comes from the Phoenician system of contemporary English. This implies that if you start looking at individual letters, you’ll see similarities between them.

To learn Hebrew, you must master all of the alphabet’s sounds and symbols. The Hebrew alphabet was first solely written using consonants with vowels gradually added to improve pronunciation.

The Hebrew alphabet and Assyrian writing are quite similar. There are 22 letters in total, none of which are lowercase. Sounds in Hebrew are generally consonants. However, the sound and numerical value of each letter differ. Nekkudot, or additional symbols, creates vowels by placing them below or on top of letters (dots). This nekudot transforms a collection of letters into syllables and meaningful words.

However, the five vowel sounds present in English are roughly equivalent to the vowel sounds represented in the different versions of Hebrew. This should make learning the Hebrew alphabet a little easier for English speakers.

Meanwhile, some communities have lost the ability to distinguish between the sounds of different Hebrew alphabet letters due to pronunciation changes.

RTL Inscription

Beginners are often surprised when they open a Hebrew book for the first time. This is because Hebrew is a right-to-left language, like Arabic and Syriac. Therefore, the content on each page is written from left to right.

Binding is on the right-hand side of a Hebrew book when placed on a table with the front cover facing up. At first glance, it may appear odd, but recall that you were formerly unable to read from left to right.

Right-to-left reading doesn’t take as long as you may expect to become second nature. You can learn it simply by doing a small amount of practice daily.

Pronunciation

The “ch” in Bach is pronounced with a deep, throaty note unique to the Hebrew language. Expelling sounds while pretending to breathe on a window and attempting to steam it up is a good way to practice generating this sound in your throat. Listening to spoken Hebrew regularly may also help you become used to the language’s natural pace and pronunciation.

There are several words in Hebrew that are difficult to pronounce because of the consonant-heavy alphabet or script. However, in contemporary Hebrew, vowel sounds are marked by dots and lines. Hence, listen carefully to the pronunciation of the four Hebrew consonants that can also be heard as vowels in typical Hebrew nouns.

The last syllable of a Hebrew word that includes a vowel usually receives the most emphasis. However, words with emphasis on the next-to-last vowel syllable, such as noun phrases, are an exception to the rule. Since many Hebrew words have similar spellings, this is essential. Only by comparing the different levels of emphasis can one deduce a word’s true meaning.

As with many languages, Hebrew pronunciation has evolved. As a result, Hebrew speakers have a wide range of cultural origins.

Some other common rules include:

  • A “/” is used to indicate syllables. Accents are in CAPS.
  • Say the letters “a” or “ah” as in “noah,” “eh” as in “echo,” “ee” as in “green,” “o” as in “orange,” “oo” as in “school,” and “ts” as in “boots.”
  • A dash adds the letter’s BASE sound to the end of the syllable when it comes before a letter.
  • “kh” (ח/כ/ך) has a guttural sound similar to when you clean your throat.
  • The sound “r” (ר) has a guttural quality similar to when you gargle with water.

Ultimately, your mother language will determine how well you can understand and use Hebrew’s intonation. It could be difficult for native English speakers to pick up the distinctly harsh “r” sound. In addition, some distinct sounds can overlap, which confuses a mind unfamiliar with them and makes learning more difficult. 

Conjugations

Hebrew verbs can take many forms depending on the subject’s gender. A benefit of studying Hebrew is that it only has two tenses, which makes gender modifiers difficult to master. The first, second, and third persons also serve as modifiers for a verb’s single and plural forms.

Hebrew employs the system (binyanim). Its literal meaning is “structures,” which refers to patterns for verb conjugation. Furthermore, all verb conjugations are gendered, numbered as single or plural, and have distinct forms for different speakers, further complicating things.

Based on function, verbs fall into many categories. For example, they can either be reflexive, passive, or active verbs. In Hebrew, there are only three tenses. They are simple present, simple past, and simple future. 

Gender and Number

Hebrew has gendered grammar even when words relate to things that have no biological gender. This is comparable to other languages like German and Russian as well as the Romance languages like Italian and French. Hebrew, however, functions a little differently since there aren’t distinct masculine and feminine articles. Instead, Hebrew only has one article, ה (ha or he), which is always used, regardless of whether a word is singular or plural, masculine or feminine.

Numerous nouns in Hebrew have both masculine and feminine forms and nouns with just a form. Most feminine nouns, but not all, end in ה (heh) or ת (tav). Another useful hint is that most male nouns end in -ים (-im). Feminine words end in -ות (-ot). 

Additionally, you must conjugate verbs according to the number and gender of their subjects. In addition, adjectives must agree with the gender of the noun they describe. 

Mistakes to Avoid when Learning the Hebrew Language

You should anticipate errors when learning a new language, especially one that differs greatly from your mother tongue. The journey of learning Hebrew is exciting. However, it includes several frequent errors you can easily avoid, just as in any language. You need to take action to learn precisely what you need to be aware of.

The following are some of the most frequent mistakes that Hebrew students make:

1. Having trouble with the Hebrew letters

To comprehend the Hebrew language’s fundamental sounds, you need some familiarity with the aleph-bet. Still, you don’t get bogged down in the script. For beginners, reading Hebrew involves perfecting pronunciations and being able to comprehend native Hebrew speakers.

2. Adjective-noun combinations

It’s crucial to keep in mind that in Hebrew, adjectives are usually used in conjunction with the nouns they describe. This differs from what happens in the English language. Hence, practicing the Hebrew language’s characteristics is advisable to prevent mistakes while speaking it.

Additionally, when an irregular noun’s plural form doesn’t match the grammatical gender of the single noun, another typical grammar mistake results. For instance, even though the word חלון (khalon), which means “window,” is masculine, it forms the plural using the feminine suffix -ות (-ot) rather than the masculine suffix  -ים (-im). As a result, it’s easy to get confused and speak to various windows using a feminine term.

3. Direction for writing and reading

Keep it in mind that Hebrew is written and read from right to left. This applies to the text itself and any Hebrew-language book, journal, or pamphlet. Just keep in mind to open it with the spine facing right.

4. Agreement

In a Hebrew sentence, the verbs should always agree with the subject’s number, gender, and person. If you use improper word agreement in a phrase, you might end up sounding incredibly absurd, causing others to find it difficult to understand. However, this won’t be too tough if you keep practicing.

Resources for Learning the Hebrew Language

Several online tools for learning colloquial Hebrew include courses, vocabulary lists, verb conjugation tables, and pronunciation aids. Some of the most common and helpful resources include:

1. Read books

Start modestly if you’re a beginner. Reading children’s books is a good method to start learning Hebrew. The texts are condensed and extremely simple to read. You can also read your favorite book in Hebrew if it has a Hebrew translation.

The events in the book are ones you already know about. Reading the whole book from cover to cover is unnecessary since it can be too challenging for a novice; a paragraph or even a brief paragraph would serve. The translation can be provided to you in your native tongue. 

2. Watch Hebrew movies and listen to Hebrew music (with subtitles)

You will get more used to hearing Hebrew if you listen to Hebrew music or watch its movies. You do not need to comprehend every word in the song’s lyrics. Simply leave it running in the background as you go about your business. By engaging in something you like, you will practice listening comprehension while picking new words and phrases. 

3. Watch Hebrew movies and TV series with English subtitles

Watching Hebrew movies or TV shows with English subtitles is another great way to get used to hearing the language. It helps you to know the pronunciation, accent, rhythm, and intonation.

When hearing Hebrew and reading its English translation simultaneously, your brain would learn to “hear” the Hebrew language and associate what you hear with certain English words. Therefore, after watching such Hebrew movies with English subtitles for some time, you will eventually notice that you can recognize some words and word combinations.

Additionally, you will get knowledge about Israeli culture and way of life. This is a simple and entertaining method of learning Hebrew without actually doing anything. Try to imitate the Hebrew speakers in the movies you watch by paying attention to their pronunciation and intonation.

Try listening to podcasts or radio programs for more experienced students. Make a note of words and phrases that make sense to you, and then use that information to put together the text’s main points. 

4. Read Hebrew news articles from sources.

To begin, look at the headlines and see if you can deduce the subject from the terms you already know and the context in which they’re written. This is an excellent way to brush up on your vocabulary and remain abreast of current events in the Hebrew-speaking community.

Start with shorter articles on topics you already know or read in your original language. Then, as you read, keep an eye for new words and phrases to add to your vocabulary. To begin, limit yourself to reading one article daily for several days.

5. Go online

The internet provides language learners with vast resources of free and premium Hebrew lessons. You can find some lessons on YouTube in English and Hebrew. Some YouTube channels provide free lessons or limited lessons that can augment your formal Hebrew lessons. Going online is a good option whichever way you want to learn Hebrew.

6. Speak with native speakers

This is undoubtedly one of the best methods to learn any language since it allows you to practice your abilities and pick up new ones in a relaxed and approachable setting. Additionally, it will help you to practice speaking and listening, which are crucial for learning a language. You will get the opportunity to learn more about the Israeli culture and lifestyle and know the “real” Hebrew spoken there.

Try to ask a friend or family member who speaks Hebrew for assistance. Conversing with non-native Hebrew speakers who are also learning the language is also beneficial. Learning a new language is usually more enjoyable with friends. You can make the process pleasurable by correcting each other’s errors. 

Conclusion

Hebrew is not a difficult language to learn. Simply concentrate on the fundamentals, such as grammar, the alphabet, pronunciation, etc. Now all you need to do is figure out a fun and effective method for learning and memorization. Going online, Talking on the phone, watching TV, going to cultural events, listening to music, etc are all effective ways to learn Hebrew. The most crucial thing is to continue until you master Hebrew. Focus on your progress so you can achieve your aim of becoming fluent in Hebrew. Set aside some time each week to work on your writing and speaking skills. With constant practice, you can become fluent in the language.

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