The Challenge of Learning Hebrew

I always felt that I was good at languages until I came to Israel.

I was born in Ukraine and learned to speak Russian and Ukrainian almost simultaneously. I moved to the US at ten and learned English to a point that most don’t know I was born outside of the United States. In middle school and high school, I took French, and I can still converse in it. Conversational Spanish and Portuguese I picked up in my travels. I even took Chinese and thought it to be fairly simple and easy to learn. But Hebrew, the language of my forefathers, In Hebrew I learned my match.

I faced difficulty learning it while traveling and working on the book. I looked into the prayer books and tried to make it out. I wrote down the alphabet but that didn’t help. I finally decided to go to classes where once a week, I learned to read, letter by letter, I learned to pronounce foreign words. Each word came out slowly, laboriously. I thought I was ready for Israel, but I soon learned that being to read HaTikva, means nothing. It means nothing when trying to get around when paying for services or reading a menu. I also learned that hundreds of hours spent on Duolingo made me no more capable of answering people when they asked for directions. After a year in Israel, I thought I would be virtually fluent, but I was virtually mute.

You see, most Israelis that I work with, have no patience to teach me. We have to work and converse and so we switch to English after a few pleasantries. I use Google translate for difficult things and so I learned to get by. I was waiting also for my Alija (immigration) to come through. I was waiting because I thought that Ulpan (Hebrew School) is expensive. I was sad to find out that the government Ulpan is generally very good and very affordable compared to University and private classes. And so it was a year after arriving in Israel that I began my Hebrew journey.

Twice a week in a class full of French and Russian young people, I waded through the learning of how to read and write, how to speak, how to answer questions. Let me tell you, it is no piece of cake.

Hebrew is an ancient language. It is built to “make sense” which makes it very difficult to learn. It lacks vowels to save space and is written left to right, both reasons thought to be because it was a language developed before paper, and so was etched into stone. It has fewer consonants as well, this makes words look and sound similar to each other as there are fewer sounds. Then the grammar, which has prefixes, suffixes, and endings. The prefixes and endings sound also the same and vary a lot for the female and male gender. The female and male gender are not consistent and neither are endings for the nouns, adjectives, and verbs. The verbs can be irregular and they modify the adjectives and nouns depending on who or how many people speak. The adjectives also switch their placement compared to English. It is the upside-down language that requires a consistent practice that is hard to find when working on two simultaneous graduate degrees.

After four months, it is starting to come together. I am starting to hear more words when people speak and I am starting to find it easier to speak with others. I find it also with a little effort, possible to read more complex text at a faster rate. I have a long way to go but one of my big goals and greatest challenges is starting to make progress. With effort and practice, I hope to be conversational, come October, our two-year mark.

As a Jew in Israel, there are many difficult things I find here. The language is the toughest. It gives me perspective on my parents and others who emigrate in their mid-thirties, the difficulties they find in learning a language and providing for their family. These are not weak people, this takes hard work and America and Israel are lucky to have the type of people who were able to do so. Because from first-hand experience, by the number of people I saw drop out of my Hebrew classes and give up on learning the language, it is far from everyone who can adapt, learn and thrive.

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