Although it’s tough to determine which could be the oldest languages on the planet, Hebrew can make a pretty good claim. Especially, if we mean languages still in use today. The earliest written evidence of what can today be considered a form of Hebrew is dated back to 10th century BC. Although Modern Hebrew differs from its predecessor in some ways, such a rich history is also evident in the language in use today. With the added distinction of being the Holy Language for the Jewish religion, Hebrew can be a fascinating language to study.
If you’ve decided to give learning Hebrew a try, we have put together this short guide to introduce the language and give you a bit of an insight into how difficult it might be to learn.
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The Quick Facts about Hebrew
Hebrew is a member of the Semitic languages originating from the Middle East. This language group has been around for a very long time and features written recordings from the 29th century BC. Today, the most known members of this group are perhaps Arabic and Hebrew. Although, by number of native speakers, both Amharic and Tigrinya (both in the same group) are more common than Hebrew. Hebrew today is a first language to 5-9 million people (depending on whom you ask) and the liturgical language for Jews worldwide.
For more than 15 centuries, Hebrew stopped being an everyday spoken language. It was only revived in the 19th and 20th centuries as Modern Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is the standard form of the language as it is spoken today. Along with Modern Hebrew, ancient and Biblical Hebrew are still used by the Jewish religion.
But, all of the above means that Hebrew has very little indeed in common with English, for example. This also explains why the Foreign Service Institute includes Hebrew into its list of Category 4 languages (with Category 5 being the hardest).
So let’s take a look why people consider Hebrew such a difficult language to learn.
The Hebrew Alphabet, Unusual Sounds, and Different Grammar
A lot of people, when they first come into contact with Hebrew, are startled by the use of a different alphabet and the right-to-left direction for reading and writing. The learning process is not helped by the fact that, like in Arabic, the traditional Hebrew script does not contain vowels. Those are marked in writing only by vowels points. If you’re trying to grasp Biblical Hebrew, you would also be confronted by the three different forms spoken vowels can take – long, short, and half.
Additionally, the word order in a sentence can be very disorienting for an English-speaker (or any other European language, for that matter). Although the basic word order often follows the same subject-verb-object pattern as English, there are instances where that can drastically change.
And you must deal with all of that while struggling to learn the new sounds that exist in the language.
Keeping all that in mind, learning Hebrew might start to seem like an exercise in futility. But, let’s not despair! Instead, let’s take a look at –
What Makes Hebrew Easy to Learn
Let’s first take a closer look at the dreaded Hebrew alphabet.
While the script might take some getting used to, it’s still a fairly simple alphabet consisting of 22 consonants. If you compare that to getting a hang of thousands of characters in Japanese, it might create some sort of perspective. While you would still have to come to grips with a whole new writing system, it is not as impossible as it might at first seem. Unlike Arabic, Hebrew does not even require you to learn different forms for the consonants.
What also makes Hebrew look a lot less scary is its devotion to order and predictability. Like other Semitic languages, building a lot of the vocabulary comes down to a series of “roots”, consisting of a few “radical” consonants. These are patterns that, with only a few consonants, open the meaning of a general concept. Once you learn those, making sense of what is written and creating vocabulary becomes increasingly easy.
Speaking of understanding, let’s move on to the new sounds you would have to get used to when learning Hebrew. Different pronunciation rules is in no way a phenomenon limited to Hebrew or even the Semitic languages. Just think about the voluptuous French R. So, you would have to learn to speak in a new way no matter what the language you’re learning. And luckily the Internet is full of resources to help you learn the correct way.
Additionally, if you’re focusing on learning Modern Hebrew, you are learning a form that has by now had a lot of influence by other, a lot more familiar languages, like Russian, German, and, above all, Arabic. Modern Hebrew has also lost some of the more complicated aspects of its ancient predecessors to make it an easier language to acquire.
Taking all of that into account, we can say that although Hebrew has its fair share of distinctive features, it is a completely learnable language and will reward your efforts.
Conclusion – Hebrew Is a Manageable Language with a Rich History
In the end, a lot of how you will perceive your Hebrew studies will come down to your own motivation and passion for the language. This is why it’s important to first figure out what you want to achieve in your studies and only then start focussing on reaching your goals.
Luckily, Hebrew offers up a lot of great reasons for learning it. From a fantastic history to really understanding religious texts, knowing Hebrew can really open up a new world for you.