Use What You Know
Updated: Feb 11
Systematic and Steady Learns the Hebrew
Whenever UAB students begin learning Hebrew as a second language, one of the first questions they often ask as they encounter new words and phrases is, “how do I say 'Next to' in Hebrew?” For example, when UAB students learn the word ליד (near), they may ask us to also teach them how to say ‘close to’ in Hebrew.
This search for antonyms and synonyms is a natural human thought process--one that most of us have us who have learned or are learning another language have encountered. When learning a second language, we instinctively compare new words and phrases to what feels right to us, using our mother tongue as a point of reference. It takes time and practice to learn how to break this habit and learn a new way of thinking about how to process communicating in another language. In the case of UAB students, this obviously applies to Hebrew, but this concept actually applies to any other language you try to learn as an adult.
So what can we do we do to help our brains begin to apply a new way of thinking when it comes to communicating in a new language? Our main piece of advice is to use the Hebrew vocabulary you have already learned instead of immediately searching for new ways to say something before you’ve even practiced the Hebrew you already know. Look at the glass as half full: just because you don’t know how to say a certain phrase in Hebrew in a way that translates more closely to how you might say it in your native language doesn’t mean you can’t effectively communicate a similar message in Hebrew. Dig deep to find how you can communicate with the Hebrew vocabulary and phrases you have learned in class so far.
For instance, when UAB instructors teach Aleph students the word עם (with), we don’t immediately rush to teach the word בלי (without). After students learn עם (with), our teachers will ask them a simple question:
אתה אוהב קפה עם חלב?
(Do you like coffee with milk?)
Just because the students have not yet learned how to say, בלי (without) doesn’t mean they can’t answer the question correctly. Based on the Hebrew vocabulary UAB students in the Aleph course have learned up until that point, they are able to appropriately answer the question by saying,” Yes, I do like coffee with milk” OR “No, I don’t like coffee with milk” (אני אוהב קפה עם חלב או אני לא אוהב קפה עם חלב).
The same concept applies for most other words with synonyms and antonyms that may feel more common to us. Think about if you have already learned how to say ‘good’ in Hebrew (טוב) but may not yet know how to say ‘bad’ in Hebrew (רע). Instead of focusing on what you don’t know, focus on what you do know. You could say לא טוב (not good), or even use the word hate (שונא) which can be used to describe disdain or displeasure for something by saying לא אוהב (doesn’t like/love).
Of course as you continue your Hebrew studies you will naturally expand your Hebrew repertoire to include words and phrases that may feel more familiar to you and how you naturally speak in your mother tongue. But it’s important to understand that overloading your brain with too many new words too quickly can cause confusion and may even make you feel like you “can’t do it” or that “learning a new language is too hard”—or our least favorite excuse: “maybe I’m just too old to learn Hebrew”. NONE of which are true! Anyone can learn how to speak, read, and write Hebrew—no matter what your native language is or how old you are—as long as you take the time to learn how to study Hebrew correctly.
If Hebrew fluency or proficiency is your goal, in the beginning you must learn how to speak Hebrew confidently using the limited vocabulary at your disposal, at least until you learn more Hebrew with time. Just because there are so many choices when it comes to communicating a similar message doesn’t mean you need to learn them all right away. Be conscious of the fact that as adults there’s a limit to the amount of words per day/week that we can learn and ultimately practice. Using the Hebrew we learn as we learn it is a major factor in successfully learning a new language.
Unless you began hearing a language from birth until you were about 3 or 4 years old, you likely won’t have the benefits that come with native speaking proficiency that allow you to instinctively navigate the complexities of synonyms and antonyms that come naturally to a native speaker. However, don’t worry because you sure as hell CAN learn to speak Hebrew fluently if you work hard and find meaningful ways to apply new vocabulary you learn as you learn it. This will give you a strong foundation you can use to master the Hebrew language in time. In short, be thoughtful and deliberate in your Hebrew studies to see stronger results. Systematic and steady wins the race.