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How Difficult is it to Learn Hebrew?

American immigrants are coming to Israel by the planeload and everybody is smiling. But there is a problem.


Hebrew is not an easy language to learn. Possibly the greatest problem that new immigrants face is becoming competent in Hebrew. Language acquisition is one of the main obstacles to a successful Aliya.

How difficult is Hebrew for English speakers? The CIA regards Hebrew as being of the same level of difficulty as Russian and Greek, but easier to learn than Japanese and Arabic. To train their recruits in a language, the CIA uses total immersion techniques. Whole buildings are recreated with all signs, television channels, and telephone calls in the language to be learned. The system includes language laboratories and classes with fewer than ten pupils.

In this environment, it would take forty four weeks of intensive study to reach minimum proficiency in Hebrew (for a spy). Similar results are achieved after four years of typical college language courses.


It is always good to start learning Hebrew before immigrating to Israel. But how can new immigrants maximize their study potential?



More skilled immigrants than ever are coming on aliya from Western countries. It is very important for them to learn the language quickly. Immigrants nowadays cannot afford to spend five months in intensive study at a state run ulpan, only to be told at the end of that period that they do not have the required standard of Hebrew to start work.


The teaching of Hebrew in Israel is in crisis. A government study has shown that even after five months of intensive Hebrew study at ulpan, sixty percent of new immigrants over the age of thirty cannot read, write or speak Hebrew at a minimum level. The situation amongst the Russian immigrant population is even more dire with seventy percent of immigrants not being able to understand the Hebrew television news.


As a result of this study, the Knesset has set up an inter-ministerial committee to study the situation and make recommendations to improve and change the ulpan system.


One possible improvement would be to use a system of accelerated learning. This would enable a student to make significant progress within a short period of time without relying on memory alone.


Accelerated Learning

In many languages, but especially in Hebrew, there are mathematical relationships between different forms of the same word.  It is possible to use those relationships to speed up Hebrew language learning.


It is known that from an existing word in Hebrew, new related words are formed by altering one or two of its letters. By altering words in this way, a student will reduce the need for memory work.


Hebrew is taught in an intuitive way in the ulpan system in Israel. Understanding of language knowledge is described as intuitive when it is reached without the support of any argument.  On the other hand, the systematic teaching of language follows logical, consistent, and ordered methods. This is teaching through methodology.


Western and Russian immigrants are used to studying in a organized way. Many immigrants cannot cope with the Israeli ulpan system which uses an intuitive rather than systematic way of teaching Hebrew. As a result of this, many immigrants with advanced degrees are unable to work in their professions in Israel because of the language problem.


A brief example of accelerated learning in ulpan would be as follows:  From the infinitive form “ledaber - to speak”,  it is easy to form the present tense “medaber - he speaks”,  the future tense “yedaber - he will speak”  and the imperative form ”daber - speak!”  simply by altering one Hebrew letter. 


Some students are audio learners and some are visual learners. The accelerated learning system will help visual learners because this method can be easily shown diagrammatically.  Audio learners will be helped because the different sounds follow a pattern.


The full accelerated learning system is described in the book, “Modern Hebrew A Step by Step Guide” by Michael Rose and Ezri Uval. 



An MP3 player is very useful for listening to Hebrew lessons during odd times throughout the day. One can make flashcards and learn vocabulary.  Language learning is a cumulative process. Whatever you learn will add up, so be encouraged!

Copyright by Michael Rose  © 2007

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