You can ALWAYS do without Vowels
Reading with Vowels in Hebrew doesn’t REALLY counts as reading
One of the questions we are often asked by our students is why we do not teach the vowels, also known as the Nikkud. Especially since one of the challenges Hebrew students are facing is trying to read Ivrit without understanding whether the sound should be: ah, eh, i, o, u.
As opposed to English, French, German or other Indo-European languages, Hebrew doesn’t have vowels as part of the alphabet system. In fact, since Hebrew is one of the most ancient languages still spoken around the world, the vowel system was never a part of the Hebrew alphabet.
Archaeological findings from around 4,500 years ago reveal that even the letters Yod, Vav and Hey, which today can function as vowels (Yod-i, Vav-o/u, Hey-ah), weren’t in use. Hence אתה (You-m) or את (You-f) were written the same: את. We also see this with שר (singing) and (שיר) song, which were written as שר.
However, those were added pretty quickly to the Hebrew language as vowels; in the Tanach (Old Testament) they were already in use. So when exactly did we start adding the Nikkud to words in order to indicate the different vowels? Those were gradually added during the time period when Jews stopped speaking Hebrew. During the years 300-600 CE, Jews were sent to exile and started living among populations that spoke other languages. We see a good example of this when looking just north of Israel. This was an area where the main language spoken was Aramaic. The Jews added different signs such as dots and lines to words as a way to remember how Hebrew words should be pronounced.
To make a long story short, the Nikkud was used during times when Hebrew wasn’t commonly spoken. Yet, in the last decade the Nikkud became unnecessary since we are able to recognize the pronunciation of different words from speaking. It should be noted however, that native Israeli children are introduced to the use of different vowels, mainly as a learning tool in order to be able to read the Tanach, poems, and children’s books. This is a long process, and it usually spans through first and second grade.
As adults learning a second language it is definitely unnecessary learning these vowels. First, adults do not have the time luxury that children have; you arrive in Israel and have to start working quickly. Second, as we have mentioned before, you are able to recognize the pronunciation of different words from your daily life, here in Israel.
Just picture a child riding a bicycle with training wheels. He thinks he is riding it, but when you remove the training wheels, he will end up falling off. The same goes for the Hebrew vowels: it is much better to learn how to read and write without vowels. Sure, it may seem more difficult at first, but in the long-run this process will benefit you greatly; you’ll be using Hebrew without a hitch.