I’m Mike. Some of you might have read or seen my posts about Hebrew already. If so and if you prefer not to read any of my personal stories then feel free to skip down below to the 4 keys for fluent Hebrew.
I moved to Israel in 2012 and wasn’t able to speak Hebrew, not even 50 words. Today I speak fluently and enjoy a life in this country whereby I can express myself, work and connect to people through my Hebrew.
In a paragraph it makes it seem easy – going from no Hebrew to fluency. In reality it was really hard for me to do.
For example, I had a really hard time in social situations. All of a sudden I felt stripped of my ability to speak and I had difficulty forming meaningful relationships with people. I would sit quietly not really able to say anything and I’d feel awkward, frustrated and low on confidence. It was really challenging.
My way of coping with the difficulty was to use it to motivate my Hebrew studying. As a result I would spend around an hour a day just learning new words and trying to improve my overall Hebrew. I also decided that I’d speak Hebrew and only Hebrew to Israelis. Although this did advance my Hebrew quickly it also made those social situations even more difficult because I would rarely let myself speak English and as a result sometimes I didn’t speak much at all.
When you don’t speak a language even the simplest of things are difficult. Like calling up Bezek (my internet provider) and organising a time for a technician to come over to my home. In our mother tongue you wouldn’t think twice, it’s an everyday thing to do. But in Hebrew it was all so hard. I felt far less capable in general life. This took a toll on my self confidence and my ability to settle into this new country that I was trying to find my feet in.
But over time I did improve and after 3 years of being in Israel I landed a job that I was super excited by. A school teacher in a young and democratic school in the north of Israel. And for two years I taught and managed life as a teacher in Hebrew. It was super challenging but I was able to do it and it was an incredible experience.
Now I’m a Hebrew teacher in Tel Aviv. One of the main reasons that I teach Hebrew is because I want to help people that are going through what I went through.
To help them live an easier and more joy filled life here in Israel and I know that having good Hebrew is a key part of that.
I teach Hebrew because I know how difficult it can be to learn and I want to tell others that that’s normal, that learning Hebrew just takes time. I teach Hebrew because I feel as someone who’s moved here that I’m part of a special community of people that are living here and trying their best to make a life for themselves here and I want to be there to help in any way I can.
Teaching myself Hebrew for 4 years and now teaching it to others for almost 2, I was able to develop and fine tune my method for learning Hebrew as effectively as possible. And that’s what I wanted to share with you here.
Here are the 4 things that you must be doing if you want to speak Hebrew fluently:
1) Sharpen your pronunciation
If there’s one thing that you could do right now that would immediately make your Hebrew much better do you know what I’d recommend? Sharpen your pronunciation. Speaking a language is so much more than knowing words and grammar. Speaking is about making sounds. So you have to be sure that the sounds that you are making are the right ones.
With my students I work hard on their pronunciation. Every student has their own difficulties. Many struggle with the reish – ר. A lot with the chet/chaf – ח/כ . Some struggle to differentiate between a “s” like ס or ש and a “z” like ז. Others say ק “k” when they mean to say ח/כ “ch”. And still more just can’t seem to really hear any of these differences.
But what is for sure, everyone can work on their pronunciation, and should. It gives the person that you are talking to the impression that you know the language. It gives the other person a sense of comfort because they are used to hearing Hebrew spoken in a certain way. And this sense of comfort will lead the other person to speak more Hebrew back to you. They will also start telling you that your Hebrew is really improving.
All of this together will give you more confidence to speak more Hebrew and will have you feeling better overall about your Hebrew progress. And this is what I want you to experience. So please please please don’t overlook pronunciation.
What to do: The best Hebrew pronunciation videos that I’ve found (and I should know, I searched for 5 years) are by a wonderful pronunciation teacher called Ruben at Linguistix. Watch his videos and follow along with the exercises he suggests. I use all of his suggestions with my students and they work. Let his videos help you identify (if you didn’t already know) your troublesome sounds and then focus on them. Do a few minutes of practice every day.
P.S. I’m thinking of creating flash cards that will specifically help you practice certain sounds on an app on your phone. You can open it and practice whenever you have a moment, and it will be free. If that sounds like something that you’ll be interested in then let me know so that I can gauge if I have an audience for such a thing.
2) Build a practical vocabulary
Words are important. Not just how you say them but also that you have enough words to say what you want. I recommend building a practical vocabulary – this just means that you learn the words that you actually need in every day life. In language circles it’s known as a frequency list which is a list of words that are ordered according to how frequently they are used.
I created one for Hebrew for the top 700 most used words. This is the first thing that I work on with my students. You get a lot of bang for your buck with these words. It is said that learning the top 700 words in any language will give you about 70-75% comprehension of any conversation in that language. That’s because these are words that you use all the time.
Then from there I get my students to write down words anytime they are having a conversation and don’t know a word. This builds a list of words that they actually need in their everyday life. This is what I mean by practical vocabulary. When you get to around 2000 words then you’re looking at closer to 90% comprehension.
So, what to do: I like to set a 10 week goal for my students (and myself). Say 150 words in 10 weeks. This means learning 15 new words a week over ten weeks. It’s realistic. You can do it. Think what it could be for you. Then write down (computer, notebook) 15 new words every week. Write the Hebrew, English and write a sentence with that word (see next section). This will have you building new, practical vocabulary and will have you feeling like you are making real progress (and you will be).
I recommend checking out Brainscape and entering your words/sentences into it as flashcards. It’s a simple to use app and website and does wonders for your memory. After all, no point learning new words if you are just going to forget them (that used to drive me crazy!)
3) Develop your grammar understanding
Languages are built in certain ways and on certain laws. Understand these laws and you’ll better understand the language and how to use it. Hebrew, lucky for us, is very structured and getting your head around it grammatically can lead to significant short cuts in your progress.
The way that I teach grammar is simply to introduce a grammar topic (like active verbs – פעל) and then have the students write sentences using some of the new verbs that I’ve introduced. I tell them to make their sentences personal – actually connected to themselves and their own world – it makes it more fun and that way you can accumulate more practical vocabulary – yesh!
For example if we’re learning the verb I checked (בדקתי) they might write,
I checked buses on google maps before I left the house last night. בָּדַקְתִּי אוֹטוֹבּוּסִים בגוּגל מַפּוֹת לִפְנֵי שֶׁיָּצָאתִי מֵהַבַּיִת אֶתְמוֹל בַּלַּיְלָה.
What to do now: Get a grammar book (I recommend Lewis Glinert) and go through it. In every new grammar point/section just write a few sentences to help you get your head around it. There will also be example sentences in the grammar book that will help.
Alternatively, if grammar books are not your style, then rope a Hebrew speaking friend/partner in to help you. Take your words from your growing vocabulary list in step 2 and just write sentences with those words (remember to make them personal). Get them to check your sentences for you and explain (if they can) any corrections they make to your grammar.
From my personal experience it can be frustrating asking your Israeli partner to do this for you but asking Israeli friends to correct a handful of sentences over whatsapp or google docs is something that I’ve had a positive experience with. No matter which way you choose, don’t ignore grammar, it can help us speak better faster.
4) Practice speaking
This is the most important of all the four points. It doesn’t go without saying unfortunately but if you want to improve your ability to speak Hebrew then you have to actually speak it! And speak it as often as you can.
Speak to whoever you can, whenever you can even if that means speaking to yourself or your dog as some of my students do. Just get your mouth ‘saying’ Hebrew. Think about how many hours of your day you speak Hebrew and how many you speak English. I’m guessing that the scales are heavily in favour of English. Maybe you’re not speaking more than 20 minutes of Hebrew a day. Do whatever you can to up your current speaking amount.
What to do: Find someone who’s also learning Hebrew and go have a coffee with them once a week and speak Hebrew. Find an elderly person who could use some company and speak with them in Hebrew. Find an Israeli that wants to work on their English and speak 30 minutes in both languages Hebrew and English.
I also organise with my students casual meet ups where we just get together around Tel Aviv and speak Hebrew and usually do something fun. Contact me or check out our facebook page to learn more and come along! Great speaking opportunity with some awesome people!
So that’s it. My 6 years of experience with this language bottled down into 4 tips with practical advice on how to go about actioning each one.
If you’d like to see this method in action and experience how it actually works practically then consider joining one of our Hebrew group classes. They are a fun and very efficient way to learn Hebrew.
I hope that this article has been helpful. I’m here for you, so send me a message if you have any questions. I want to help so tell me how I can do so.
Behatzlakha and remember, you’re not alone on this learning Hebrew journey!