How to learn the Hebrew alphabet

How to learn the Hebrew alphabet

Learners of Hebrew, whether Modern or Biblical (Ancient), are often intimidated by the first step they’re required to take — learning the alphabet. At a first glance the Hebrew alphabet presents an unsurmountable challenge. It has a totally different set of characters, sprinkled with mysterious dots and dashes, like a bagel with sesame seeds.

Still, you are reading this post. Deep inside you know that behind the wall of the Hebrew alphabet lies a land flowing with milk and honey — a wealth of new novels, comic books, hip-hop songs, poetry, political blogs, and subreddits to read. The code to this treasury is the Hebrew alphabet and we will help you crack it 😎

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Get your gear ready, here we go.

  1. Why learn the Hebrew alphabet?
  2. Why Hebrew alphabet is hard
  3. Why Hebrew alphabet is easy
  4. What is the Hebrew alphabet really?
  5. How to learn the Hebrew alphabet

1. Why learn the Hebrew alphabet?

An alphabet is a gateway to understanding the language — the ability to read it gives you confidence, and allows you to understand your surroundings better. In other words: it helps you to feel more like an insider.

Even if your plan is only to visit an Israeli shuk (market) during a week-long trip, there are still plenty benefits to learning to read the Hebrew alphabet, in both its printed and hand written form. Let’s see some examples of what the Hebrew alphabet can help you achieve.

Drink coke

Learning the characters will be enough to let you decode a large part of a basic menu, where many words are similar to English ones (תה [te], tea; קפה [kafe], coffee), and many others are transliterations of well known products (קוקה קולה [koka-kola], coke). Combine it with a greeting and a word for please, and you will be able to go to a cafe, pick up a menu and order without uttering an English word, feeling totally Israeli 😎

Be cool

Admit it, there is a certain cool factor associated with learning a new script. Tracing new shapes, and associating new sounds to previously meaningless characters comes with a sense of mystical discovery 💫

Read blogs

More obvious reasons for learning the alphabet are similar to those motivating learning the language, such as gaining the ability to access a wealth of Israeli culture. If you’re interested in politics, learning the language will have an added benefit of allowing you to read articles in Hebrew, and investigate the public opinion through personal blogs, comments on forums or websites.

Avoid confusion

Associating a language with a new system of characters makes it less likely for you to confuse Hebrew with languages you already know.

For example, let’s say you speak both French and Portuguese, which both use the Latin alphabet. When reading in one of these languages, your brain first needs to determine the language the text is written in, and only then activate the “decoding” system responsible for this particular tongue.

A completely different alphabet generates a unique mind space for the language — the Hebrew language knowledge algorithm will be activated only when you see a specific set of characters.

Nurture your soul

Ok, we’re getting a little hippie here!

Focusing on writing new characters is a meditative activity — paying attention to calligraphic details and new shapes reminds you to enjoy the moment, and stay in the present. This is a very helpful trait to cultivate to later be able to stay focused on hard grammar classes 🤓

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2. Why Hebrew alphabet is hard

New system — new symbols

We get it, a new alphabet comes with a whole set of new symbols. You’ll be departing from the cosy surroundings of the familiar-looking Latin letters 😋 You’ll feel like you’re back in primary school, exerting effort to read a simple three-letter word.

Let’s see the benefits here though: you’ll get in touch with your inner child, and appreciate how easy it is to read the Latin script. After half an hour of squinting over Hebrew, reading — even a paper on neuroscience! — will feel like a breeze.

Print and cursive

Modern Hebrew exists in two slightly different forms: printed and handwritten. That’s 27 symbols x 2 to learn! 😱 Well, not really. Most of the letters in cursive look nearly exactly the same as their print version. Compare two forms of the letter bet:

letter bet

Don’t they look much alike?

Why have so two types of alphabets? you might ask. Notice that this is actually not so different from the situation in English. How so?

We all learned how to decode several types of Latin scripts — each person’s handwriting! ✍️ If you can decode your coworkers’ fridge notes, and your teacher’s essay comments, you’ll have no problem adjusting to the Hebrew cursive.

Missing vowels

n Hbrw w wrt nly cnsnnts.

In Hebrew we only write consonants. If you hear this claim without knowing anything else about the language, it can sound a bit scary. It’s not the same however as removing vowels from English.

Hebrew belongs to a different family of languages, and has a lot of features that European languages don’t. The rest of the grammatical system is adjusted to match the “missing vowels” characteristic.

The language works together to make it very easy to guess which vowels are used in an even unknown word — much easier than if we gave you a list of vowel-less words in English:

  • sp — *soup? soap? sip? *
  • trck — trick? track? truck?
  • nml — *animal? 🦉 enamel? *

It needs to be added that in Hebrew some vowels are in fact written out, so you won’t be left entirely without clues.

New sounds

Hebrew has phonemes (sounds) that don’t exist in English. You might need to sign your tongue up for a gymnastics class to master some of them. The silent choke of ayin (ע), the harsh kh of khet and khaf (ח, כ, ך), and the gentle roll of the resh (ר), are the three mane “offenders”.

You’ll need to train your pronunciation, just like your writing. But, don’t despair, tongue and the rest of the speaking apparatus are muscles — they can be stretched and strengthened 💪 Same as you can train to do 50 pushups, you can also teach your mouth pronounce a new letter (or three).

In addition, Hebrew speakers in Israel come from many diverse backgrounds. For a lot of citizens Hebrew is not their first language, or it’s not a language they spoke at home when growing up. This creates a wide variety of pronunciations and accents, each with equal likelihood to belong to a fluent speaker. So, even if your pronunciation is not news-broadcast perfect, you still have a chance of passing as an Israeli.

Different readings

There are a few letters which can be read in different ways, depending on their position in a word. For example, bet (ב) can be read as “v” or “b”, khaf (כ) as “k” or “kh”. The pronunciation of the most indecisive of all letters, aleph (א), depends on the (unwritten!) vowel that comes with it — yikes! 😦

However, both this 👆, and the “vowel problem” are addressed with the biggest delight of Hebrew grammar — the omnipresent patters…

3. Why Hebrew alphabet is easy

Patterns make reading easy

If a sense of fear fell on to you when you heard about the missing vowels in Hebrew, it’s time to stop worrying. This doesn’t mean you’ll need to memorise the pronunciation of every word before you can read it (Hebrew wins over Japanese kanji here 😋).

There are several word patterns that dictate how the words are pronounced. An essential part of learning Hebrew is learning these patterns. You’ll feel like a WW2 intelligence officer, decoding a code of secret messages! And, after a while, no message will be inaccessible for you.

It’s just 27 characters!

Hebrew only requires you to learn 27 new symbols (22 letters, five of which have a different, final form). Compare that to the 71 characters representing syllables in Japanese, or the 2,000 hanzi you need to read a basic text in Chinese. With LinguaLift learning Hebrew characters is just a week-long project 💪

Vowels are not important

There are over 15 vowels in Hebrew, most of them unwritten — three varieties of “o”, three varieties of “e”… the usage of each of them governed by complex set of vocalisation rules. Sounds complicated! While these rules are important when you learn Biblical (Ancient) Hebrew, in the Modern Hebrew reality the different types of vowels don’t make much difference in pronunciation.

As long you know the difference between an “a” sound, and an “o” sound you’re set.

No need to join the letters

Unlike in the English or Arabic alphabets, Hebrew letters are always written separately, even in cursive.

Ok, maybe if you’re sloppy or lazy you will end up joining some letters failing to lift the heavy pen off the page 🏋️‍♂️, but that’s not standard practice. Unlike in the Arabic alphabet, where each letter has four forms depending on its position in the word (beginning, middle, end, or separately) in Hebrew each letter has only version 👏

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4. What is the Hebrew alphabet really?

We keep using the term alphabet, but in reality the Hebrew writing system is an abjad (cool new word right?) — a consonantal alphabet where only consonants and long vowels (ones that can’t decide whether they are consonants or vowels) are represented with characters. The rest of the sounds are supplementary, and aren’t always written out.

There are many ways of writing the Hebrew alphabet. From the pointy scribbles of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
dead sea scrolls credit: www.facsimilefinder.com

through the decorated calligraphy of the Medieval texts,
Manuscript credit: bodleian.thejewishmuseum.org

through the unique Rashi script, reserved to represent the voice of one of the most famous Jewish scholars:
Rashi script credit: imhm.blogspot.co.uk

to modern Hebrew Cursive:
Hebrew Cursive credit: streetwisehebrew.com

and a variety of funky fonts:
Hebrew Fonts credit: alefalefalef.co.il

5. How to learn the Hebrew alphabet

Should you learn the Hebrew alphabet first?

There is a claim to be made that learning the alphabet can slow down your progress in speaking — you’ll be focusing on the letters, neglecting oral skills and vocabulary.

However, even if your study plan is to focus on speaking you will need to record the words, to be able to review them. There are very few courses which would rely solely on audio, and allow you to do that. The only alternative to using the Hebrew alphabet for writing is to rely on transliteration — using Latin characters to write Hebrew words.

While this might slightly speed up the learning process, using transliteration can make it hard to later connect the characters with the corresponding sounds. Also, because not all sounds exist in English, representing Hebrew words with Latin characters will often be inaccurate. Relying on reading transliteration can adversely impact your pronunciation.

Bearing in mind that reading Hebrew relies on pattern recognition, the earlier you expose yourself to these patterns, the faster you’ll start seeing connections between pronunciation and writing.

Learn Hebrew print

Have a poster

For ease of reference create a poster, or a simple sheet of paper with all the Hebrew characters, their names, and their version in cursive. This will be a huge help, and will save you time browsing through a notebook of scribbles.

LinguaLift

We wouldn’t be ourselves if we didn’t pitch our own product 😜 Or rather… we wouldn’t create a Hebrew course if we didn’t know what we were talking about! The first 5-6 classes of the LinguaLift Hebrew course introduce you to all the Hebrew characters and their quirks. The script section has handy mnemonics to help you remember the shapes, and the spaced repetition system will tell you when to review to improve memorisation.

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Standard rules

As with learning any new language, standard rules apply. That is: review regularly, and practice regularly in short sessions than binge learn. For more on efficient learning methods visit our blog!

Easy Hebrew newspapers

Because of the large number of new immigrants in Israel there is a wide market for materials for adult learners. There are newspapers in simple Hebrew, with vowels written out, like Yanshuf or Sha'ar La'Mathil, and radio stations in slow and simple Hebrew. The advantage of these is that you can skip talking about your favourite animals and daily schedule, and read simplified articles on the Large Handron Collider and the UN — how cool is that!?

In addition, most films and TV programs in Israel are subtitled in Arabic and Hebrew (yup, the text takes, a big part of the screen), which makes it very convenient to practice reading and listening at the later stage of your learning.

Learn Hebrew cursive

You might have doubts as to why you need to learn cursive at all. But trust us, it’s used a lot. From names of products on the shuk, through seasonal menus, and cursive-like fonts, to notes left in small shops.

Don’t be square like the Hebrew print, dip your pen in the ink and get down to the calligraphy business!

Practice by transliterating English

How can I practice writing if I don’t know any words? That’s what you might be asking yourself in the beginning stage of learning Hebrew, but there is a simple remedy.

Use Hebrew to write in English! It’ll be a good transliteration practice, and it’ll still make you feel cool when scribbling in your notebook on the subway — to a passer by it will look like you’re writing the language fluently 😝

Now, that’s not to say you should abandon learning vocab or grammar. We’re simply trying to prevent you from using lack of knowledge as an excuse to put off learning the script.

Use every opportunity to write

Start a practice journal. Best is to have it pocket-size so that you can carry it with you everywhere. Make it a habit to practice a few characters at different points during the day: at a lunch table, in the post queue, on the toilet, creativity is the limit!

Copy texts

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can open a website in Hebrew, and copy the text into cursive. Admittedly, this can be pretty boring if you have no clue what the text is about 😬 — either Gogle Translate to the rescue or, for an extra kick, you can turn to the Bible, and copy your favourite passages or stories. Its passages are conveniently labelled, and you can use a website with parallel translation (like Mechon Mamre) to know which exact passage means what. A nicely calligraphed biblical passage can be an excellent gift for grandma (just a hint).

Use apps

There are some good apps that help you learn new scripts. The one we particularly like for Hebrew is Write It! Hebrew which monitors you tracing the shapes on the screen with your finger.

After a week of intense practice you will start seeing Hebrew character everywhere (like on the Uniqlo logo). That’s the sign you have mastered the arcane art of the Hebrew script.

Uniqlo

Ready to start cracking the code?

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