The Four Phases of My Hebrew Study

by Glenn on April 6, 2022

I am entering a fourth phase of Hebrew Study.

Phase 1 was the Dabbling phase. I was interested in Biblical Hebrew and someone who teaches the subject recommended Udemy to me. I took a couple of courses and purchased several others that I’ve never done anything with.

One course I took was called “Learn Hebrew with Legos,” which was really interesting. It gave me a sense of how the Hebrew language worked, using Psalm 23. The building block concept is a helpful one. Hebrew is compressed. It’s the condensed orange juice of languages. So for example, we say, “The LORD is my shepherd.” But in Hebrew it’s just two words:
יְהוָה רֹעִי

I also took a course titled, “Meet the Hebrew Alphabet.” My memory of that is that it moves quite slowly. It’s a very gentle introduction, like dipping your toe in the pool. I think it insulated me from the enormity of the subject. At some point you have to jump in.

In this phase I learned something about Hebrew, but I didn’t go very far into it. I didn’t learn to read. I couldn’t say anything in Hebrew. It was sort of like studying a forest by walking along its edge. You discover something about the trees on the edge, but you really have no understanding of how vast the forest is. You aren’t immersed in it. You understand a small part of the forest, but in no way are you actually in the forest.

Phase 2 was the Delusional phase. This phase started with the onset of Covid. I remember having two distinct thoughts back then. The first was, “I could die.” I didn’t have heavy anxiety, but enough to wonder if this could be the end as it turned out to be for so many. (Note: I had Covid twice. Once with the vaccine and once without. My experience was that it was much better—read less worse—with the vaccine.)

The other thought I had was, “Maybe I could do something with this time.” I had just started a program at Northeastern Seminary and while we were locked down I thought I would learn Biblical Hebrew on the side.

I found a tutor through Varsity Tutors and we worked through a textbook called Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar. The tutor was great. He was a seminary student with an interest and experience in the Biblical languages. The text was good too. I ordered the DVD’s to watch, although I see you can watch them through a site on Zondervan.

The delusion was in me. Somehow I thought that by merely reading through the material I would absorb it. I suppose it’s the same delusion of thinking you can learn a musical instrument by going to a music lesson every week. If you want to become proficient with the instrument you’re going to have to practice between lessons.

And so this Delusional Phase was characterized by the fact that I was putting in some time, but not consistent time. And I didn’t have anything like a study plan. I think I was hoping I would learn by osmosis. (By the way,  this sort of “learn Hebrew while you sleep” video doesn’t work. That is not a method. The one good thing about that kind of video is it does give you some vocabulary to learn, but you can’t go to sleep and wake up speaking Hebrew, although I tried.)

I also watched a fair amount of Hebrew television and movies, which I will describe at another time. My sense is that these aren’t the greatest way to learn Hebrew, but they are good markers for seeing how much you’ve learned. Some day it would be great to watch without subtitles and understand what’s going on.

I did learn some things in this phase. The most important thing was learning the Hebrew Alphabet (אָלֶף־בֵּית עִבְרִי) cold. But the reading was difficult because I didn’t practice regularly and systematically. As far as learning the Hebrew Aleph Bet, I consider two sources invaluable. The first was this lecture by Miles Van Pelt:

The other was a song:

(If this goes by too fast, there is a slower version.)

One thing I learned during this phase is that there is a difference between Biblical and Modern Hebrew. There aren’t dramatic, worlds-apart differences between the two, but they are there. So, for example, there are different approaches to pronunciation, the most striking being how to pronounce the Hebrew letter ו. In Modern Hebrew it’s pronounced “vahv” and those who want an older/classical approach say it’s “wow.” It makes a difference. Is David pronounced “dah-VEED” or “dah-WEETH”?

Miles Van Pelt (and my tutor) learned and favored the older pronunciation, which sounded funny to my ears. It felt very American, but I think it was just that the people I heard speaking it sounded so very American. I wasn’t hearing the language in a way that modern people speak the Hebrew language. It wasn’t that I had that much exposure to the sound of Modern Hebrew. But I often struggled with pronunciation because I didn’t feel I had an accurate sound in my ears and was trying to make a choice in the moment over which pronunciation.

Perhaps I didn’t know which one was correct, either. Turns out you just have to decide, although there are people who insist on preferring the older pronunciation. My thinking is that Hebrew is confusing enough without trying to learn the two different pronunciations for the four letters that are pronounced differently in the classical version. If I was going to read or say something in Hebrew, I didn’t want to first decide whether it was the Bible or not, to determine how I would pronounce the words.

During this Delusional Phase I also did some dabbling with learning systems like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur. The problem you come to is that there are so many systems and only so much time. To follow multiple systems is an investment of time I don’t have on a daily basis.

I spent about a year in this phase. The main lesson was to learn about the enormity of the project. I think I saw the size of the mountain I wanted to climb. It was a little overwhelming to see how much there was to learn and how little I had actually learned. Hebrew is not an easy language. It’s not the hardest either, but there is plenty of challenge there for an English speaker.

There was also a great cautionary note from the tutor who said not to start infusing sermons with Hebrew. That’s a good word. I haven’t strictly followed the rule, but I am trying to be careful about when I refer to the Hebrew behind an English translation of the Bible.

Along the way I think I decided I wanted to speak better with correct diction. So I made the decision I would speak Biblical Hebrew using Modern Hebrew pronunciation. And that led me to looking for a different Hebrew tutor.

Phase 3, begun roughly a year ago, was the Decision phase. The decision was to get more serious about my studies. I found a tutor in Tel Aviv (she has since moved) whose name is Noya Einhorn, who I discovered through a video she made that teaches English speakers how to make the sound of the Hebrew ר. It’s an “r,” but the way they say it in Hebrew is not how we say it in the U.S. She gets it and teaches it well.

This was a really helpful video, as are the rest she has made. (In addition to tutoring, Noya is a skilled singer/songwriter.) After an interview, she took me on as a student and I have been working with her for the past year. The time difference was the main hurdle for studying with her—my early morning is Noya’s late afternoon. That has seemed to work well.

The decision to get more serious meant not only learning learning a language, but learning how to learn a language. There are some helpful books on the subject:

Benny Lewis. Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World. New York: HarperOne, 2014.

Gabriel Wyner. Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It. New York: Harmony Books, 2014.

YouTube is also a good spot for this sort of “meta” thinking on language acquisition. The danger here of course is obsessing with learning to learn and avoiding the actual learning of Hebrew. The most important thing I think I’ve picked up from from YouTube is the value of regular, systematic practice and the invaluable nature of “comprehensible input.”

I’ve had to come to terms with some things:

1. I am a little older than I used to be and things don’t come as easy as they did. If they ever did. It could be that I have never actually pushed myself this hard to learn something so complicated. You have to be patient. In fact, the more anxious you are about learning, the harder it is to learn. There’s been a fair amount of sadness to this study. It doesn’t come easy and then any time I watch or listen to something in Hebrew, I realize I only catch a word here and there and most of it goes right over my head. It’s like as far as you’ve come you see there is farther to go.

2. I don’t think I ever learned to study in a way to retain things over the long term. I learned to take tests rather than absorb knowledge. Language study means starting sooner and staying with it longer. It’s about regular systematic study, not a cram session. Anki has become my most important study tool. The principle behind Anki is spaced repetition.

3. Language study means you are on a journey for a while. I remember learning to juggle in early 2021. It took just a few days with the assistance of  this YouTube instructor. You can learn to juggle in a few days. You cannot learn a language in a short time like that. Part of the decision phase has been to decide to stay with Hebrew. There are other things I could learn, but those are on hold as I would like to be able to read the Bible and converse in Hebrew.

4. A little focus goes a long way. There are so many apps and programs for learning. I’ve looked at and tested out a number of Apps. The problem is that these can be a distraction from your teacher’s lessons. There isn’t a perfect way to learn Hebrew. If you have a good teacher—as I do—then it makes sense to learn what they are teaching and not get side-tracked on other things.

5. I need a system for learning. This has been a long time coming, but I think I’m almost there. My minimum daily practice includes using three Anki decks for Hebrew. One is a “listen and respond” deck where I’ve taken audio clips and split them into English and Hebrew. I listen to words and phrases in either English or Hebrew and translate. Second is a read and recite deck, again translating either from or into Hebrew. The third deck is a recall and write deck, where I practice spelling my vocabulary words. I’m experimenting with Apple’s Keynote program as a way to study. That is a relatively new tool, but it appears promising as it’s easy to bring new words and concepts into the system. You need a system robust enough to incorporate all that you are learning, but not so complicated that you avoid bringing new words and concepts into the system.

During this third phase I took the first semester of a Biblical Hebrew course through Northeastern Seminary. It went pretty well. The nice thing was that the professor for this Biblical Hebrew course used modern pronunciation. I would like to take the second semester of the course when it comes around again. He also has a Hebrew Club which I am part of. It’s easily the dorkiest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s a lot of fun. We are working verse by verse through 1 Kings—reading and translating. I’m feeling pretty good about my reading and see I have a long way to go with my translating.

I memorized some things in Hebrew and decided to record them as a way to remember where I am right now. Over the next year I hope to learn more things and improve my pronunciation. This is a video snapshot of where I am right now.

(I noticed I mixed up some of my ה‘s with my ח‘s, but we were going for where things are and, apparently, I mix those things up.)

Phase 4 I am calling the Deliberate Phase, which I am beginning as I enter my third year of serious study. If the first year of study was to find out what I had to learn and last year was learning how to learn, my hope for this next phase is simply to learn. I am committed to learning Hebrew. There are other things I could pay attention to, but I am liking the challenge of seeing how far I can get with this. Now that I have a system for learning it, I am merely tweaking that system rather than obsessing over what it should be.

For this new phase, my main focus is my lessons with Noya. My goal is to have all the vocabulary memorized and to become more verbal using that vocabulary. Practice means going through the Anki cards and using the vocabulary I’ve learned. I’ve done pretty well with the inputs to language study (reading and listening), and now I need to turn more to the outputs, speaking and writing.

I will continue to listen to the Pimsleur Hebrew course when I am driving or on a walk as well as a podcast or two. I don’t think they take away from my lessons.

When I have time, I will continue to work through my Biblical Hebrew textbook from Northeastern Seminary. It’s:

Ethelyn Simon, Irene Resnikoff, and Linda Motzkin. The First Hebrew Primer: The Adult Beginner’s Path to Biblical Hebrew, Third Edition, Revised with New Explanatory Notes. Berkely, California: EKS Publishing Co., 2005.

I am revisiting the lessons from last semester and then will see what forward progress I can make.

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