Hebrew is one of the oldest languages.
Along with Arabic, Hebrew is one of the official languages of Israel.
It is also spoken in large Jewish communities around the world.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and copies of the Torah continue to be handwritten by a scribe in classical or biblical Hebrew.
Aspiring polyglots might be deterred by Hebrew’s different alphabet, but it is not an impossible language to learn, but it’s an important one for people wanting to understand the Old Testament on a deeper level, go to Israel, or mingle with Jewish communities.
Let’s take a look at the challenges of learning Hebrew, in addition to the things you can look forward to during and after learning.
Is Hebrew Hard To Learn? (10 Things To Know)
1. There Are 22 Characters
Learning the Hebrew alphabet could be daunting since it contains 22 characters.
This is different from the Roman alphabet—the one used by English speakers—that contains 26.
It is a Semitic language (of Jewish origin) and includes sounds that are difficult to pronounce.
For example, the “r” sound in Hebrew is quite guttural, much like it is in French.
One of the letters makes a “cha” sound that comes from the back of the throat, unlike any sound we have in basic English.
Other sounds that can be difficult for English speakers are the “chet,” “chaf,” and “r,” “p,” “t,” and “k.”
Even though there are just 22 letters, there are five that have a final form.
In total, there are 27 letters since some have a “final form,” meaning that they can change depending on the word they are in.
Letters that have a final form look different depending on whether they are at the beginning, middle, or end of the word.
This is somewhat like the Arabic writing system.
It might sound daunting, but it is simpler than you think!
The letters and their corresponding pronunciations can be learned in less than a week if you strategize well.
Do not let this deter you, because compared to languages with different writing systems, like Chinese, Arabic, Georgian, Japanese, and Korean, the difficulty of the Hebrew alphabet is minimal.
For example, Chinese has thousands of characters, Arabic has four incarnations of each letter, and Georgian letters are almost indiscernible from each other.
Hebrew only has 27 characters, and most of them are easily discernible from each other.
Hebrew has 30 phonemes with 24 consonant sounds and 6 vowel sounds.
2. Sentences Vary For Feminine And Masculine Forms
Similar to other languages, verbs take different forms depending on whether they pertain to a man or woman.
In Spanish, this comes in the form of a noun.
In Hebrew, it is verbs.
For example, the male form of the sentence “I don’t understand” is pronounced “Ani lo mevin” and the feminine form of the same sentence is “Ani lo mevina,” where “mevin(a)” is the verb for “understand.”
Another similarity to Spanish is the addition of “a” at the end of the word to feminize it.
Other words add prefixes and suffixes to change the tense and pronoun involved.
For example, the word דבר, pronounced “deber” is the root word for “speak.”
When conjugated to the first-person masculine present, it is מדברת or “m’deberet.”
The masculine form is the default, but Modern Hebrew can be a bit tricky with its present tense conjugations, which often have exceptions.
Thankfully, in Modern Hebrew, you only need to learn a few verb endings, which remain relatively constant across verb types.
Whether the subject is us, you, or them, the verb does not change.
The only thing that matters is the number and gender of your subject and object.
3. Hebrew Shares Similarities With Other Semitic Languages
If you learn Hebrew, you might be wondering if it will help you learn other languages as well.
Though Aramaic and Arabic have different alphabets, they share similarities with Hebrew language structure and some vocabulary, too.
For example, “ehad” in Hebrew and “wahad” in Arabic both mean “one.”
“Olam” in Hebrew and “alam” in Arabic both mean “world.”
“Shalom” in Hebrew and “salam” in Arabic both mean “peace.”
When written in their respective languages, ילד, “yeled,” and صبي, “walad,” both mean boy.
בת, “bat,” and فتاة, “bent,” both mean girl.
יום, “yom,: and يوم, “yawm,” both mean day.
מלך, “melekh,” and يوم, “malikh,” both mean king.
Modern Hebrew and Arabic use a lot of similar vocabulary, sentence structure, and phonetics, but use completely different alphabets.
Another similarity is that both Arabic and Modern Hebrew do not have vowels in their written forms.
You either begin to memorize words or can at least put together what sound might correspond with the preceding letters.
Both Arabic and Modern Hebrew have a three-letter root, preceded by a prefix and succeeded by a suffix.
If you know Arabic already, this will be a familiar concept to you when learning Hebrew.
However, there are also a lot of differences.
For instance, Arabic has more plural conjugations than in Hebrew, making speaking in plurals in Hebrew slightly easier than in Arabic.
Hebrew grammar is probably more challenging for English learners than Spanish or French grammar, per se, but many people say that it is easier than Arabic grammar.
In Arabic, there are three cases that speakers need to be cognizant of when forming sentences.
In Hebrew, there are basically zero—there is one accusative tense, but it is rarely used.
If you need to use the accusative case, you will be happy to know that it is easy to use.
You only need to add את, “et,” before the noun to make it the accusative case.
For example, in English, you might say, “I took the cake to Maria’s house.”
To make this the accusative case in Hebrew, you just need to say, “I took “et” the cake to Maria’s house.”
In other languages, like German, you would have to completely change the words for “the,” “excellent,” and “advice.”
Hebrew is much easier in this regard.
4. There Are Ways To Be Polite In Hebrew
In Hebrew, there is no way to say, “I would like,” when asking for or ordering something.
Therefore, you must say “I want,” which might sound a bit too demanding.
However, if you pair this phrase with “rotseh,” which means “please,” you will appear much more well-mannered.
As in English and many other languages, there are words you can add to your sentences to make them more polite while showing gratitude and respect to whomever you are speaking.
5. Vowels Appear Below The Letters In Writing
Unlike in English and most other languages, where vowels are letters, themselves, Hebrew denotes vowels through symbols that appear below other letters.
The vowels follow the Niqqud system, which children are taught to memorize from a young age.
If you are learning Biblical Hebrew, this changes a bit, because you will also need to learn vocalization rules that govern how to add vowels to a word.
These vocalization rules have a lot of nuances, but if you are just learning Modern Hebrew, you do not need to worry about that.
6. Sometimes Vowels Do Not Appear At All
In written Hebrew, the vowels are almost never written.
When children are young, they are taught to memorize the Niqqudot vowel system.
When you are first learning words, you will be able to see the vowels.
As you get more comfortable reading, you will realize that you probably do not need the vowels anymore.
Written Modern Hebrew relies on pattern recognition.
The good thing is, once you can recognize the root, you will understand the meaning of the word in all of its forms.
Prefixes and suffixes are sometimes added to denote the gender and number of the subject or object, but you will still know the meaning and probably find that you do not need the vowels anyway.
This is like English, which has a lot of roots with their own meanings that change depending on if you are using the noun, adjective, or verb form of the word.
If you are familiar with Arabic, Russian, German, or Polish, a lot of the root words in Hebrew will sound familiar to you.
Regarding Hebrew grammar, the main thing to keep an eye on is the binyanim.
All verbs have a root that fits into one of seven binyanim depending on the form of the verb you are using.
Once you understand these rules, though, it will come quite easily to you.
7. There Is A Script Form Of Hebrew
Like English, Hebrew has both a print and script form of the written language.
Thankfully, though, the script and print forms of Hebrew do not vary too much from each other.
This is unlike Russian, where the script and print forms are worlds apart.
Modern Hebrew cursive features all the letters connecting to each other, as in English script, but if you know how to read the print form, chances are that you can read the script form as well.
8. Hebrew Is Read From Right To Left
One of the most apparent differences between Hebrew and the languages that use the Roman alphabet is that Hebrew is read from right to left, which could take some getting used to.
Despite this difference, it is easier to become fluent in Hebrew because there are so many intonations of the language, so the accent is irrelevant.
Unlike, in English, where articulation and clear speaking are of the utmost importance, Hebrew speakers do not pay attention to the way you speak.
Instead, they focus on your ability to get your message across—in other words, accomplishing the basic premise of language.
If you can speak Modern Hebrew, there is a good chance you will be taken for an Israeli, even if you think you do not sound like one.
9. It Shares Few Similarities With Indo-European Languages
As a Semitic language, Hebrew shares very few similarities with Indo-European languages such as English, especially concerning vocabulary, grammar, and writing.
The status of Modern Hebrew as a Semitic language is hotly debated, however, since it has adopted a lot of sounds from Germanic and Slavic languages.
Biblical Hebrew, though, is undoubtedly Semitic.
Hebrew often intimidates potential students, and for good reason.
However, you might find comfort in knowing that Hebrew and English do share one very important similarity: sentence structure.
In both languages, sentences follow a subject-verb-object order.
For example, “She went here” in which “she” is the subject, “went” is the verb, and “here” is the object.
In this way, Modern Hebrew shares a common lineage with Biblical Hebrew and the logical construction of other Semitic languages, but no longer contains all their complexities.
In addition to Biblical and Modern Hebrew, there is also Rabbinical and Medieval Hebrew, which have a layer of Aramaic as well.
These forms of the language are dependent on the time in which they were formed.
Hebrew is one of the oldest written languages, so it has a rich history full of different forms and variations.
As a result, Hebrew can be found in a variety of other languages.
Biblical Hebrew famously loaned a lot of words to other Canaanite languages.
The most important influence on the language occurred in the 17th century when Hebrew was again incorporated into daily communication instead of just religious written texts.
The language changed greatly and also took a lot of words from other languages because people needed to describe things that were common now but were not around in ancient times when the language first formed.
It was reconstructed primarily by German and Slavic languages.
If you listen to Modern Hebrew, you will recognize a lot of words from Modern European languages.
Arabic and English have also made their way into the Modern Hebrew lexicon, so listeners from all over the world will probably recognize pieces of their language.
Israel, where Modern Hebrew is the official language, also houses immigrants from all over the world.
As a result, Israel has become a cultural and linguistic melting pot that has had a tremendous influence on the development of the Hebrew language.
English, as one of the most spoken languages of the world, has found its way into much of the Hebrew lexicon.
So much so, the Academy of Hebrew Language in Israel is actively trying to de-English the language, in an attempt to maintain some of its heritage from the Bible or Babylonian Talmud.
Some words on loan from the English language include אבולוציה, “evolútsya,” (evolution), בומרנג “bumerang” (boomerang), דיקטטור, “dikator,” (dictator), ויסקי, “víski” (whiskey), לפטופ, “laptop” (laptop), פלסטיק, “plastik,” קריקט, “kriket” (cricket).
10. Hebrew Has Only One Article
People often say that Spanish is the easiest language for native English learners to grasp, but Spanish also features several articles—singular and plural, definite and indefinite, masculine and feminine—which can get confusing and tedious.
Hebrew, on the other hand, only has one definite article marker that does not change regardless of gender or the number of objects to which you are referring.
This makes it somewhat easier to speak Hebrew since you do not have to constantly worry about the type of article you need to use.
When speaking Hebrew, the verb “to be” is often omitted because it is implied.
For example, “The apple is red” becomes “Ha tapuach adom.”
The verb “ha” is the definite article that is used for both plural and singular verb forms.
What Are Some Effective Ways To Learn Hebrew?
To learn the letters of the alphabet and their pronunciations, it is a good idea to start with flashcards.
You can write the Hebrew character on one side of an index card, and the phonetic English pronunciation on the other side.
This is a good way to help you memorize the letters since it’s completely different characters.
Once you have a good grasp of the alphabet, you can practice writing words to get the hang of how the letters blend to form complete words and sentences.
It might seem daunting to read without the help of vowels, but as you practice, it will get easier.
To practice, you can pick up a dictionary or phrasebook, because they will almost always have the vowels accompanying the words.
This is a good way to review vocabulary and start to memorize how to pronounce words.
Eventually, you will start to memorize what certain words look like and how they should sound based on the word stems.
If you want to master pronunciation, listening to YouTube videos or podcasts dedicated to Hebrew learning can do a world of good for your education.
You will get more comfortable recognizing the sound and how to discern one letter sound from another.
Then, you can practice repeating the sound yourself.
You can record yourself practicing the sounds on your phone or computer and then play them after listening to your video or podcast.
You can compare the teacher’s sounds to your own sounds and continue practicing until your pronunciation improves.
If I Know Hebrew, Do I Also Know Yiddish?
The short answer is no.
Yiddish is a mixture of German and Hebrew that formed among German Jews in the 20th Century.
Yiddish uses the same alphabet as English, so in that sense, it is somewhat easier to learn.
Knowing the Hebrew alphabet will help because many of the sounds are similar between Hebrew and Yiddish.
It will probably be easier to learn Yiddish if you are a German speaker first, rather than Hebrew, simply because of the similarities between the alphabets.
Yiddish is written in a phonetic Hebrew script, so it is easier to learn than Hebrew!
Why Should I Learn Hebrew?
Hebrew is one of the most fascinating languages to learn because of its rich history.
Hebrew was the language of the Bible, but it’s unique because there was a period of about 2,000 years when no one spoke it.
It only came back into modern communication about 100 years ago, which very few languages have done after being nearly extinct for so long.
Modern Hebrew is extremely important to Israel.
Israel is constantly riddled with conflict but continues to be a safe haven for the Jewish people and was created as such after the atrocities the Jews faced during the Holocaust.
Since then, Israel has become one of the technology capitals of the world, so Hebrew is becoming especially important to the future.
If you plan to take a trip to Israel, knowing Hebrew will be an indispensable advantage.
The language is spoken by 8.3 million people in Israel and 1 million people outside of Israel.
It is estimated to take 44 weeks, or 1100 hours, to achieve a level 3 proficiency in speaking and reading in Hebrew.
That’s not too bad, right?