I have always loved the Hebrew language. And what’s more, I have always felt that Hebrew is an integral part of who I am, even when I did not understand very much of it. So when my family made aliya several years ago, I figured that since Hebrew was a natural part of me, it would naturally just come to me when I needed it most. In other words, I didn’t have much of a plan for how I would acquire basic competency in the language.
And because I had never had even a bit of formal Hebrew instruction, I really didn’t see how I could dedicate myself to the kind of structured, intensive study I imagined took place at an ulpan. And besides, the countless demands on my time as an oleh trying to build a new life for myself and my family in Israel just didn’t leave me with any spare time for such a ‘luxury.’
So I suppose that my brilliant plan was that I would somehow just ‘absorb’ Hebrew by keeping my eyes and ears open. I secretly entertained the notion that if I just listened closely enough, I would achieve a breakthrough moment, not quite dissimilar to that of Antonio Banderas in The Thirteenth Warrior, when he amazes his Viking cohorts with his command of their language after days of just watching and listening:
But after a few years, I realized that I am no Antonio Banderas. The ‘ambient absorption’ method was not working very well for me. So I started experimenting with different self-study methods. There were the conventional tools, like Rosetta Stone and Hebrew study books. And then there were some newer methods, like on-line ‘language swapping’ sites. But after lots of trial-and-error, and a good bit of frustration, I discovered that there were three techniques that were, by far, having the greatest positive impact on my Hebrew:
1) Watching Israeli TV, but only with Hebrew closed-captioning, and mostly those programs where the speech is clear and copious. The trick has been to watch on the internet, be trigger-happy with the pause button, and use Google Translate to look up the words and sentences I hear and read (remember those captions) but don’t understand. The other trick is to watch the right shows. There are a lot of shows where the speech is too “sound-bitey” (Kochav Nolad), too glib (Eretz Nehderet), or secondary to the action (Niuyork). But then there are those few shows that have really helped my Hebrew a lot. My top pick is Ha Chaim Zeh Lo Ha Kol, which is the longest running show on Israeli television. There are five full seasons available from Reshet TV on youtube:
Other favorites are Ramzor, Katmandu and Mesudarim.
2) Reading as much of a Hebrew Israeli newspaper as I can each day. My favorite is Israel HaYom, partly because it’s free, but mostly because it tends to be more crisp and to the point in its journalistic and editorial style. I tend to be well-versed in current events (as most other Times of Israel readers surely are), so I find that reading the news in Hebrew seamlessly introduces me to the Hebrew versions of the phrases that are making their rounds in the media at any given time.
As an added benefit, reading Hebrew newspapers has made it possible for me to understand the rapid-fire ‘news-speak’ heard on Israeli TV and radio news shows.
3) Speaking Hebrew with my spouse. Ok, I know this is a really tough one, but it really has made all the difference. The other methods have fine-tuned my ability to understand what I hear and read, but the only thing that’s worked in getting me to ‘think’ in Hebrew is using it with those people I speak to the most.
Now while I cannot claim to have achieved Hebrew fluency, I can confidently say that these methods have placed me on the fast-track to that goal, b”H. I am sharing my experience with the sincere hope that it might be of some help to others who are pursuing this labor of love.