I moved to Israel in October 2012, I couldn’t speak nor understand Hebrew. I struggled to have anything more than a “Hi, how are you, nice to meet you” conversation and then when it went beyond that I was lost and just kind of stood there smiling and saying “ken, ken, ken”.
I felt frustrated and unsure of how to proceed. But I was desperate to learn and committed to finding a way. I would read books about language learning and how memory works. I would try out different strategies for learning. I would speak and make mistakes and speak and make mistakes again and again and again.
On the whole it was just really hard. All of a sudden being unable to participate in conversations, just sitting there mute and frustrated by the reality that all of a sudden hits you – I can’t speak nor express who I am anymore. I found that really hard. But I worked at it, consistently, stubbornly. Sometimes I was too tough on myself, but I pushed forward and continued to improve.
Although there were a lot of things that happened in between, in August 2014, after being in Israel less than two years, I got a job as a school teacher. For two years I taught lessons, ran parent meetings, attended staff meetings and planned curriculum in Hebrew. I built relationships with my kids (grade 5 and 6), formed friendships with the staff and collaborated with parents. I was managing a life totally in Hebrew, I loved what I did and I became a valued member of this small school community in the far North of Israel where I lived.
The joy of being able to live in this country completely in Hebrew, where the language is no longer your greatest burden but rather a new way for you to be and connect, this is what drove me to create Teacher Mike and teach Hebrew. Because I want others to have the same experience.
I left the school in 2016 and have been teaching Hebrew ever since. I teach in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and online. My goal is to support others who are going through a similar journey and looking to really improve their Hebrew and create a richer life here in Israel.
So, without further ado….these are my 5 keys to learning Hebrew….some of them I did well, some I wish I’d known from the beginning.
1. Be Gentle with Yourself
Learning a language takes a long time and never really ends. Treat it like a marathon and not like a sprint and you will be much more likely to succeed and to have a better time doing so.
Be patient and go easy with yourself – especially if you have the tendency – like me – to be a perfectionist and a little hard on yourself. This also means celebrating your small wins. The little things that you do well. E.g. you put together your first sentence, or you use some new slang for the first time, or you speak in future tense. Celebrate it! Learning Hebrew often makes you feel incapable, that’s why it’s important to really celebrate those things that you are doing right!
Being gentle also means allowing yourself to speak English whenever you need. I would often force myself to speak Hebrew when sometimes I really just needed to give myself a break and speak my mother tongue. Everyone here understands English anyway. It’s OK and sometimes really important to give yourself that respite of speaking English and not struggling with every word that is trying to come out of your mouth.
For some people this step is less critical than others. If you are a perfectionist like me then this step is SO SO important because otherwise you can just ground yourself into frustration and give up or end up loathing the language. If you are generally pretty gentle with yourself or sometimes ‘too’ gentle that you always go back into your comfort zone when things get tough then you need to probably pay more heed to the next point…
2. Open your Mouth
This is going to sound obvious. In order to learn to speak Hebrew you have to speak Hebrew. Meaning, don’t wait until you “know” how to say something before you start saying something. This sounds so simple and IT IS but it’s so often not put to use by many Hebrew learners.
When I was learning Hebrew in the early years I would speak to people no matter what my level was. Even if it was just Shalom Ma-nishma – שלום מה נשמע – Hi, how are you? I’d just say that, over and over again to people on the street. I’d always start a conversation with Israelis in Hebrew and stay in the conversation as long as I could. Did I make mistakes? Of course. Were there funny and awkward moments? All the time! Is this natural? Absolutely!
3. Develop a Consistent Study Schedule
Learning Hebrew is a huge task, it’s a mammoth proposition! It’s not running to the store to buy some almond milk….it’s competing in an Ironman triathlon in the alps of Switzerland. If you were to train for an Ironman (10 hours of non-stop swimming, biking and running) you wouldn’t train every so often, you wouldn’t work out when you felt like it. You’d set up a clear schedule of training which you’d be doing some form of every day building up slowly to higher degrees of complexity and intensity. It’s no different with learning Hebrew. You need to work out, day in, day out, consistently. You need to show up.
Regular study of the language combined with regular speaking of it is my best advice for learning Hebrew. I’ve had times where I only did one and not the other. It was usually when I was working as a teacher or studying in Hebrew that I’d only be speaking it and not studying. My speaking and comprehension speed improved but my overall language ability (meaning my vocabulary and mastery of grammar) stagnated. I wasn’t using new words, I wasn’t expanding my Hebrew. I felt kind of stuck.
That’s because speaking is not enough. You need to combine speaking with studying. That is, focussed goal-orientated study that teaches you new words and how to use them and then you go out and use them in your speaking. This is the perfect balance – studying and speaking. Doing one and not the other will lead to much slower progress.
4. Focus on a Practical Vocabulary
In step 3 we spoke about the importance of studying regularly this step is about “what” to study. The Pareto principle (or you may know it as the 80-20 principle) says that 20% of the causes lead to 80% of the results. 20% of your customers give you 80% of your overall income. You wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time and you listen to 20% of your music collection 80% of the time.
It’s similar in Hebrew. 20% of the Hebrew lexicon accounts for at least 80% of the words that you’ll actually need in order to speak. I believe that it’s more like 10% of the lexicon equals 90% of the words that you actually need. What this means is – be practical. Learn the words that you actually need in order to speak and don’t get bogged down with all those other words that you’ll never really use. Focus your energy on the vocabulary that you actually need for speaking and that way you’ll be able to decrease the amount of words that you learn and increase your understanding and speaking ability.
In language circles this is called using a frequency list. A list of words that are most frequently used. I found one in English of the 625 most commonly used words and I learnt all of those words. That leads to between 70-80% comprehension of anything that you’ll hear. I’m now in the process of making a 2000 most commonly used word list in Hebrew for my students. Once you learn 2000 of the most commonly used words you’ll be at about 90% comprehension of anything that you’ll hear and read in Hebrew. That’s time well spent. That’s what I mean by developing a practical vocabulary. Then after that you can start specialising your vocabulary to your particular interests and lifestyle. E.g. you can start reading Harry Potter in Hebrew and learn the word for cape and spell and wand and Quiddich.
5. Use flashcards to remember your new words
In step 4 we spoke about “what” to study, now we will talk about “how” to study. One of my great revelations was using flashcards to help you remember. For the first year of my Hebrew studying I was perplexed by the question – how will I remember all of these new words and expressions? I couldn’t believe how easily I forgot things. Someone would tell me a word and the next day (or hour) I’d already have forgotten it. It was a deflating experience.
Then I came across flashcards….and not just ordinary flashcards, spaced repetition flashcards.If you don’t know what spaced repetition is then just think of it as flashcards on steroids. You study them less and you remember them more. So I started to learn how to create these flashcards. The better I became at making flashcards the more I was able to remember and with a shorter time investment. They became like my secret weapon. I never forgot another word or grammar concept again.
So my learning process was like this: I’d take a word from the frequency word list (step 4) or from a list of words that I’d write throughout the week that people told me or that I really wanted to know, then I’d make a flashcard out of each word and then I’d review these flashcards for about 10 minutes a day on a flashcard app on my phone. This combined with step 2 (speaking) was the way that I learnt Hebrew…and continue to, to this day.
So I think that this really summarises my approach and all of the things that I’ve learnt in the last 5 years of Hebrew study and particular the first 2-3 years when I was establishing a Hebrew level good enough to gain employment as a teacher. If you follow these 5 steps then your Hebrew learning will be progressing with bullet-like speed. I wish you all the best with your studies and please send through your questions or comments!