For the past month we’ve been in Tel Aviv, one of the few cities where I can disappear, while I did a consulting contract (working full time). Jo worked on her Arabic, and I worked on my Hebrew and distance running around work.
During this month I took my Hebrew from a few sentences to functional fluency by learning ten sentences a day. And this is how it went!
In the beginning, I knew a bit of Hebrew, including the numbers, a few fruits, some greetings and the phrase “I don’t speak Hebrew very well”.
And I’ve always wanted to learn more Hebrew. I like the Israeli people, and the microcosm of a more Mediterranean Middle East that it embodies. I have a lot of both generally Jewish and a mixed bag of Israeli friends who speak between a little and a lot of Hebrew. Plus, because of the strong connection between the Hebrew language and Jewish identity, people are often disproportionately pleased that I’ve made the effort. It helps bridge a cultural gap. Who’s this Iranian non-Jew speaking our ancient language? It’s the main reason learning a small language or dialect can be so rewarding.
In this region, I’m many “others”. To the Iranian government I’m a non-Muslim. To the Israelis I’m an Iranian. To Arabs, I’m an Iranian non-Muslim. There’s no sanctuary in being brown. So whatever I can do to bridge the gap, the better for me, and for the world to know: we “others” are potentially OK.
So, knowing I’d be busy with the consulting project, I decided to put an 80-20 approach to learning Hebrew to test: learning 10 sentences a day, time-boxing to spend an hour a day at most. Here’s how it went.
The end result, Hebrew after Thirty Days
Here’s me giving a brief speech in Hebrew.
Since this is not intelligible to 90% of the audience, here’s what some friends of my Hebrew level:
- Amir: “You’re Iranian and you can speak Hebrew and even write… are you a spy?” (No! Why do the Israelis think I’m a spy for Iran, and the Iranians think I’m a spy for Israel? Either way, I’d be good at it)
- Shachaf: “C’mon man you’re fluent in Hebrew!” (Absolutely not! He was just being nice. But there’s a lower threshold for “fluent” in languages fewer outsiders learn.)
- A waitress: “Eh, you speak Hebrew like I speak English…” (This accompanied a “meh” hand waving gesture… most accurate review)
My own assessment: The dialogue in the video is not perfect, and has errors, and I can’t pronounce the r sound, making it sound French. But I don’t care! It gets the message across fine.
When speaking to people, sometimes I throw in an English word but in a Hebrew accent. This is a pretty good way of filling in blanks.
I feel a lot more comfortable listening to everyday Hebrew than I did when I arrived. I can pick up a lot, sometimes the entire thread of a conversation, and can respond in broken Hebrew or English. When I arrived it was mostly incomprehensible to me.
In casual situations, like chit-chat in a market (where someone couldn’t believe I knew what fresh almonds are, as apparently you can only get them in Jerusalem… not true), I can get by and pass as someone who speaks. I sometimes panic mildly, wondering when I’ll lose the thread and the jig will be up.
If speaking to an only Hebrew speaker I can get by in a slightly complex situation if we’re both motivated. This happens more often outside tourist areas of Israel than you’d think.
What I Did To Get Here
My main commitment was to learn ten sentences of Hebrew a day, logging words and sentences in my 80-20 vocab list and video myself saying them.
I time-boxed this to one hour. In a world of limited time, I find time-boxing more rewarding than setting numerical goals.
Learning ten sentences could mean learning all the words necessary, more than 20 sometimes. But sometimes it was far fewer, if I were using words I already knew, but in different ways.
I also focused on everyday words, and de-prioritised writing Hebrew. Hebrew is fairly hard to read and write, since some consonants do double-duty, and many vowels are silent. I just learned enough to make sure I could double check my voice-to-text was accurate.
All in, in a month, I learned about 350 sentences, and about 700 words. Some are verbs and can be used lots of different ways. I didn’t learn all of them perfectly… Some words just don’t stick. (I seem to never remember the word for “nuts” which is annoying because I often want to buy nuts. I end up just buying the ones I can say, like almonds and pistachios.)
To make me learn to say them fluently, I’d write out the transliteration, mouth them a few times and then record myself saying them out loud every day. Then I shared these videos with Jo. This part was crucial to making myself do it, as it held me accountable to her and to myself.
I’d also just practise variations in conjugations in one sentence. If I learned a verb one way, I’d learn it all the ways. For example if I learned how to say “I ate an apple” I’d also learn to say “what did you eat?” And “do you want an apple?”
The tools I used were the ones I mentioned in my guide to essential tools for learning spoken Hebrew: a simple “Teach Yourself”-style text, the TeachMeHebrew website, Glossika, Bing translator and Google sheets.
If you want to try out Glossika, check out our guide to getting the most out of it, “The Only Language Learning App You Need“.
What I Learned for Next Time
I’ll definitely use this approach of “ten sentences a day” again. From listening, trying to express myself then going away and learning the sentence and words better for next time, I could visualise exact situations where I needed to say certain things. This helped cement the words in my brain.
Another thing that helped a lot was constantly being around Hebrew dialogue. People at the place I was doing a contract were always discussing things, and the conversations were never complicated. So I had a rich source of listening material, and sentences to add to my list.
For example I was talking to someone at work once and he said a word I didn’t know, asking me “siyamta?”. I felt like it meant “Did you finish (work)?” So I said yes. I had to go look it up later to confirm. Now whenever using the verb “to finish”, I think of him and his friendly face.
How does this help us? It means we have to go to public places to learn. This puts the focus more on volunteering, social activities (like a running club I will join in Kenya) and volunteering opportunities (something Jo will do while I go flog myself distance running). Or even… Just getting a job, or doing more consulting contracts.
I have to emphasise: getting a teacher comes first. I didn’t get one, because I had a lot of other priorities. This focus on sentences and recording them is just a way of forcing you to solidify what you learn.
A few things to improve on next time:
- Learn properly, don’t just go through the motions (sometimes): I sometimes admittedly phoned it in, just to tell myself “OK, I did it today.” When I was learning words and sentences late at night and wanted to go to bed, I didn’t do a great job of memorising. I can’t afford to do that! On the one hand, I have nothing to prove to myself, but on the other hand, the psychological feeling of consistency is important.
- Use a teacher. I kind of wish I did, even for just an hour on weekends. You know how it is though — after a busy week, on weekends you just want to go for an epic run and then sleep.
- Be a little systematic. I think I should focus on some word lists every day, like certain verbs I’m having trouble with, prepositions (above, before, etc.). Verbs, prepositions and conjunctions are the glue of language, and revising them completely is always so helpful.
More lessons to apply to Swahili, coming up very soon!