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You speak Hebrew: now what? Top 5 tips to keep on learning!


Full disclosure: my kids laugh if I say the words “I’m bilingual” out loud.  And with good reason.

I’ll be the first to admit that Hebrew is not, and never will be, my first or best language.  I probably won’t ever be as good as they are (even if my vocabulary is technically better than theirs, in terms of sheer number of roots and words I know).

It’s true that I have an accent, and that’s never going away.  I can’t help feeling insulted when people hearing my accent, though they’re trying to be helpful, switch into their terrible English.  What, my terrible Hebrew isn’t good enough for you?

It’s true that I will probably never be comfortable with a fast blast of Hebrew shouted at me over the phone or from across the room.  Stand in front of me, let me see your lips move, let me see your body language.

But still.

What has most made me realize I actually have become bilingual is that walking the streets of London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, LA, Toronto (I’m such a world traveller!), and catching a burst of Hebrew coming from behind me, across the room, or down the street makes me turn my head.  And usually, I understand the words, which 99% or more of the people around me do not. 

It doesn’t feel the same as speaking English in a foreign country—almost everybody I’ve encountered in Europe has some awareness of English, so you wouldn’t want to talk about them in front of them, for example (not that I’d do that anyway!). 

But just as the joke in my grandparents’ generation was, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it in Yiddish,” if you’re abroad and don’t have anything nice to say, you could definitely say it in Hebrew, confident that nobody eavesdropping will understand – except me, because I’m bilingual now, or at least, I pretend to be.

As much as I love French, I never reached that level of fluency in it.  I adore listening to French people speak, and can read, write, and utter a choice few phrases myself (not that kind of choice!), but definitely can’t keep up with the words at an ordinary conversational pace.

Still – as happy as I am with my skills, I am also coming to grips with the fact that (see above) this is not ever going to be my first or best language.  And that I will have to keep practicing… or I’m going to lose what little progress I’ve made.

Here are my Top Five suggestions for practicing your Hebrew once you are even a little fluent:

  • Read a newspaper – there are a couple of free papers, so I love that this costs nothing.  Yisrael Hayom is not a bad free paper to get started with and in the Friday edition, they have extra sections with human-interest stories, recipes, parsha column, consumer columns, international celebrity gossip, and – my personal favourite – trivia.  I read the trivia questions at the Shabbos table and my husband occasionally gets the answers right.
  • Listen to a podcast – my ulpan teacher strongly recommended that we all listen to the radio, but I’m just not a radio person.  Never have been.  But podcasts… now that’s a different story.  Free and entertaining and you learn a little about life.  My Canadian brother-in-law turned me on last year to a podcast called Israel Story and the great news is – it’s available in Hebrew and English!  Inspired by This American Life, the creators aim to tell well-produced, quirky stories about Israeli life.  Not every story is available in both languages, but you’ll discover lots of great Israel stories on either side of the site… (you can listen directly on the site or subscribe in your podcast app)
  • Fix your pronunciation – there are only 11 videos in the Linguistix Pronunciation Hebrew series on YouTube, but every single one is worth watching for the help this guy, Reuven, offers in improving your accent in Hebrew.  If you’re not from Israel originally, you DO have an accent.  Foreigners spend hundreds of bucks to lose their accents in English so they sound smarter and more articulate – why not put in just a little time and effort to buff up your Hebrew pronunciation with these easy, non-threatening videos?
  • Get a job or volunteer – even a part-time job, and even a volunteer job.  Just get out of the house, travel around a little, and meet people you wouldn’t otherwise.  If you’re retired, ESRA is always looking for English teachers, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll learn just as much Hebrew from your students as they’ll learn English from you (though this may be because I’m not a terrific English teacher, who knows?!).
  • Regress a little – this is one you’ll probably prefer to do in private:  listen to classic Israeli kids’ songs in Hebrew!  You can find a ton of these all over YouTube, but you want a video that includes subtitles – “שירי ילדות כתוביות” / shirei yaldut ketuviyot = songs of childhood (with) subtitles.  (Hint: you don’t have to type it in, just copy and paste it from here!).  This childhood songs video, from Hop!, has decent animations, fairly clear lyrics, and subtitles with vowels, so you’ll actually recognize the words you’re hearing!  You probably won’t want to watch all 45 minutes, but fortunately, YouTube will often remember where you were if you want to come back and watch more. 

(If you enjoy kids’ stuff, you can also find lots of recordings of Hebrew kids’ books, such as this YouTube playlist, though most aren’t the same high quality as English-language kids’ books…)

Whether or not you FEEL fluent or would dare say you’re bilingual out loud (and risk the laughter of your children), after a while of learning, speaking, reading, writing, and interacting in Hebrew, some of it is bound to rub off.

And it may help to remember – whatever your level of Hebrew, your English is a darn sight better than most Israelis’, as this old but still-funny video of an Israeli ordering in a U.S. restaurant proves.  You may not get some of the jokes if you haven’t spent a lot of time around Israelis.  But if you have… hilarious.  And of course, besides being the best medicine, laughing – at ourselves, and at everyone else around us, is the best way to feel better even when times are frustrating.

Do you already know Hebrew, too?  Whether or not you’re fluent yet (fluent like me or fluent like my kids!), I’d love to hear YOUR ways for keeping your Hebrew strong and maybe even taking it to the next level.  Be sure to share your comments below!

(“Lively Conversation” photo credit  (c) Ananian via Wikimedia)

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. Take classes in Hebrew, even if it's dance or arts and crafts.

    1. Yes, definitely! Actually, "even" probably isn't right -- if it's practical classes unrelated to language, you'll probably pick up more. I learned a ton of anatomy terms in Zumba and exercise classes -- and even basic words like tikra (ceiling), when you have to stretch or turn your palms towards it. :-)

  2. Great ideas! Thanks for sharing the sources. We like to travel locally in Israel with Hebrew-speaking groups.

    1. That's a great idea! I think you have to be at a certain level to be comfortable, not only with the guides in that sort of group, but also chatting with the other participants... how long did it take you to get to that level?


I'd love to hear what you have to say.