The Biggest Challenges for Israeli Students Learning English: How to Overcome Them?

English teachers rarely understand why Israeli students face so many challenges when learning the language. We could solve that in an easy way: make English teachers learn Israeli. That would make them understand how different these languages are.

Israelis who speak English fluently are usually positively singled-out within their schools or work environment. Due to the fact that most people in Israel don’t speak English well enough, they let people with better understanding of the language take control. They are the ones who do the talking for them, so foreigners may get the false impressions that Israeli are pretty good at learning English.

Israeli students are taking mandatory lessons in English from the 3rd grade on. If they want to get a high-school degree, they have to pass an English exam, and higher education institutes demand higher levels of English. Despite the attempts of the educational system to expose students to English from a very young age, Israeli people face serious obstacles when learning the languages.

The Challenges

Both English and Hebrew are alphabetic languages, and are read phonetically – by breaking words into constituent sounds. In comparison, Chinese and Japanese are logographic languages, in which words and phrases are being presented through logograms, which represent concepts instead of sounds.

Despite that similarity between the two languages, there are notable differences in the way the human brain processes Hebrew and English words. Researchers from Hadassah University provided scientific backup for something Israeli students already knew: it’s hard for them to process English words.

  • Most words of the Hebrew language are built up from roots, usually consisted of 3 letters. Thus, rikud means dance, and rakadti means I danced. The root is r.k.d. The English language, on the other hand, is characterized by prefixes and suffixes to base words with actual meaning. An Israeli’s brain is used to classifying words on the bass of morphology, whereas an English native speaker’s brain focuses on semantics. Structure vs. meaning – that’s the main difference that makes English a great challenge for Israeli students.
  • The participants of the above-mentioned study had a problem with the morphological processing of English words. A person’s brain processed the two languages differently. The results indicated that both nurture and nature had an impact on the way people learned how to read.
  • English, like most other languages, is written from left to right. Hebrew, however, is written from right to left.
  • The English language is more descriptive. In Hebrew, the same sentence would make for fewer words in general.
  • The Hebrew alphabet has no vowels. That’s one of the many reasons why native speakers have a difficulty to adjust to English spelling and vocabulary.
  • The differences in grammar between the two languages are very challenging, too. The verb grammar is similar when it comes to past, present and future tenses, infinitives, imperatives, and conditionals. However, the subtle differences are responsible for the incorrect English verb use that’s characteristic for Israelis. For example, the present tense in Hebrew doesn’t use the copula to be. Thus, it’s not usual to come across constructions such as ‘You beautiful today’ from beginner learners.
  • The syllable-stress in English is quite flexible. Hebrew speakers usually stress the last or penultimate syllable in the words.
  • The nouns in English don’t have grammatical gender. In Hebrew, every noun has a grammatical gender.
  • The sentences in Hebrew often start with the verb, which is followed by the subject. In English, the sentences usually start with the subject.

Tips: How Israeli Students Can Overcome the Challenges when Learning English

The good news about Israeli students is that they come from a very efficient educational system. In Israel, English is taught in all schools, so people usually have a decent foundation, although their skills are not perfect. For an adult learner who has never tried learning English before, things are a bit more complicated. Still, it’s not impossible to master the new language. Here are few of the methods that can help Israeli students master the foreign language:

  1. In Israel, all foreign TV shows and films are shown with Hebrew subtitles, so you listen to the original language. Watching movies is a great opportunity for learners to listen to the English language while reading how the words and sentences would be translated into Hebrew. Over time, they should try getting a bit less dependent on the subtitles. As they continue listening to the protagonists speak, they will understand what they say. Repeating after the actors is another useful method that helps with the vocabulary and pronunciation.
  2. Recipe videos on YouTube are an incredibly helpful tool in the language learning process. These videos come with clear instructions and visual presentations of what’s being said. The chefs speak slowly and clearly, so everyone can understand the steps.
  3. Music is another important tool, which helps learners to learn new words and master English pronunciation. The rhythm of the lyrics makes them easy to remember, so the listeners can easily start singing along. The more a learner relies on this method, the stronger their foundation will be.
  4. One of the best methods is a total immersion course in an English-speaking country. When Israelis are completely exposed to the language, they intuitively start understanding the grammar and vocabulary.

The differences between the two languages are noticeable. However, the more challenging a goal is, the more the learners are committed to achieve it. With the proper approach and enough effort, Israelis can master English just like people from other countries do.

About the Author
Amy Cowen is a writer, private tutor and educator from Australia.
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