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Why you should say l'hitraot to writing Hebrew in phonetics

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

It may be harder in the short term, but learning Hebrew using the aleph-bet will make you a better speaker long-term.

The Hebrew aleph-bet may be daunting for new learners, but writing in phonetics (shalom, ma nishma) is a short cut that will set you back in mastering Hebrew long term.

There are a lot of aspects of Hebrew that make it fairly easy to learn - the patterns created by the roots (שורשים) of word groups and only three tenses. But we know that the foreign characters of the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) complicates things a bit…well a lot.

Writing in phonetics means writing out the pronunciation of the word with characters from English, or another language - for example, writing שלום like shalom.

At UAB, we encourage our students to learn the aleph-bet and use it to read and write our new vocabulary in class - this is because writing in Hebrew is proven to help you learn the language quicker. Not only will it boost your reading and writing, but it will also improve your speaking skills.

When you read and understand a word in a new language, something wonderful happens - your brain actually ‘sees’ the word as a visual object, associating it with the sounds that the word makes.

Our brains 'see' words, so when you learn a new word in Hebrew and associate meaning with it, your brain will retain it!

Scientists at Georgetown University Medical Center gave participants 150 nonsense words, and scanned their brains before they learned them properly. Their brain registered them as random symbols, with no meaning.

Yet after they learned the random words and associated them with a meaning, the words looked more like familiar, everyday words - their brain literally ‘saw’ the word!

This study and others like it show that when learning a language, seeing the words is critical in learning them. Moreover, to hear and speak new words is not enough to learn them, the researchers found - seeing the words written are essential factors to comprehend and memorize the new words.

This is exactly what happens when you learn Hebrew by reading in Hebrew characters. One of the first words you see in a beginner UAB class is לא (no). Once our students see this word a few times, they’ve learnt it - and don’t even give it any thought afterwards.

To write out Hebrew words in phonetics may find you success in the short term as it helps you to pronounce the words - but this short cut may leave you frustrated in the long term, as you find it harder to advance in reading and writing - two very important skills if you’re planning a life in Israel, or to master the Hebrew language.

This is why at UAB, we encourage you to get comfortable with reading and writing in Hebrew characters. It may be hard at first - and we totally get it - it’s a challenge to come face to face with a whole new alphabet. However, with a little persistence, grit and chutzpah, we know your hard work will pay off, and you’ll be an even better Hebrew speaker than you ever thought (!העבודה הקשה תשתלם)

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