Hebrew is a member of the Semitic language family and is essentially different than any member of the Indo-European language family spoken in Europe. The difference doesn’t only present itself in vocabulary but also in grammar and in the alphabet. We shall discuss these points later on.
For native English speakers who have spent all their lives in an English speaking country, this could turn out to be a great impediment, perhaps even greater than for those who are native speakers of other languages. The main reason for this lies in the fact that nowadays English is taught all over the world as a foreign language. Therefore, there isn’t much incentive for native speakers of English to try and acquaint themselves with another language. When we, say up to the age of 10, are exposed to another language through the media (films, internet, television), through learning materials within the school system, or through casual live encounters with native speakers of our target language (student exchange programs, trips abroad or the occasional encounter) – we manage to acquire the correct way of sound production (accent) of the native speakers. As children, we are also less afraid or embarrassed to make mistakes (young children enjoy trying out new things, aren’t easily put off and adapt to changes more quickly). But even more important than that, we manage to thicken the grey matter in the left hemisphere of our brain where most language and communication skills are found.
Another reason derived from the above is that Hebrew, although very different than other languages, bears a resemblance to some central and east European languages. This is mostly due to the fact that modern Hebrew is a language based on biblical Hebrew as well as on grammatical structures from other European languages.
Let’s examine the main points that render Hebrew hard to acquire:
Most of the vocabulary in modern day Hebrew is unrelated to English. Aside from a number of words in the field of media and technology (radio, telephone, internet), medicine and science, which were artificially integrated into Hebrew, the majority of Hebrew words is essentially different and has to be learnt from scratch. When an English speaker wants to acquire Hebrew as a second language, he soon discovers that the he has to learn a whole set of new words. This is made easier for German speakers in that certain words in modern day Hebrew were derived from the same idea as in German. For example, the word “Brot” in German means Bread in English or לחם (lehem) in Hebrew and, in turn, the word “Brötchen” (or small bread = roll) means לחמנייה
All Hebrew verbs are based on a system of roots which revolves around three, and sometimes even four letters that are placed in fixed patters called “binyanim”, each of which bears a different, albeit not always the same meaning. This linguistic phenomenon exists today only in Hebrew and Arabic. As a consequence, the Hebrew learner has to adapt his way of thinking to a language with a whole different structure.
The Hebrew alphabet is essentially different that the Latin alphabet and is written from right to left. For Russians, Bulgarians, Greeks and speakers of Asiatic languages this seems to be nothing to fuss about. This is because their mother tongue is based on a different graphic system than the Latin alphabet to which they were exposed early in school when they first became acquainted with English. However, for native English speakers this might show itself to be a mental barrier that is hard to overcome.
In conclusion, Hebrew confronts English speakers with a new and tough mental challenge. However, this challenge isn’t hard to overcome. All that is needed is a load of motivation, a high frustration threshold and willingness to persevere. The teacher team at Lingolearn is skilled at imparting Hebrew as a foreign language to newcomers and to those who like linguistics and wish to acquire a solid foundation in reading, writing and speaking.