How Much Hebrew for Aliyah?


How much Hebrew you need for Aliyah is a complex question with many answers. There are many factors involved, and it is difficult to weigh the options and outcomes accurately. This article attempts to cover the most important aspects of Hebrew as it relates to Aliyah and life in Israel. Among the points to consider, in no particular order, are:

  • Location
  • Age and Ability
  • School and Employment
  • Interest Level
  • Available Resources
  • Integration in Society
  • Technology

Location – Where you live in Israel is an extremely important factor. While English is taught in Israeli schools, the level of fluency among Israelis varies greatly, and is often related to where they live. Places with large English-speaking communities and those popular among tourists have more support for English than rural communities with few Olim from countries where English is spoken. There are pockets of English where school-age children in the streets are rarely heard using Hebrew, and shopping districts where vendors are capable of handling English. Some municipalities offer special services to help Olim in English, and many communities are magnets for speakers of English.

If you live in a place where English is very commonly used, you may need little Hebrew to survive, but some things are only Hebrew, and those will pose a challenge if your Hebrew is weak or non-existent. You may have shops, neighbors, a congregation, and other community resources available entirely in English, but one phone call to a customer service representative who only speaks Hebrew can bring that house of cards tumbling down. Some Hebrew is always advisable, but if you live somewhere where English dominates and can tolerate the occasional need to use a translator, you may rely almost entirely on English.

Age and Ability – Youth and native ability to learn language are very helpful in acquiring Hebrew. Young children often acquire Hebrew in a very short time, and adults with innate skills manage to build vocabulary with relative ease. Seniors and those less adept at learning a foreign language may need to put in a lot of effort and have a lot of patience with a slower pace of building Hebrew skills. If you have are in a situation where you can learn Hebrew with relative ease and continue to practice and build your skills, your Aliyah experience may prove to be much easier and more fulfilling, but how comfortable you will be without much Hebrew is a very personal matter.

School and Employment – Students and working adults can face a double-edged situation where they need Hebrew very much, but also have access to many Hebrew-speaking classmates and colleagues with whom to interact and improve their skills. Schools offer services to help new Olim acquire Hebrew, and some schools have instruction, tutoring, or other services available in English. Some workplaces have a more English-tolerant or even English-dominant environment, but as a rule jobs require at least a functioning knowledge of conversational Hebrew. If you anticipate the need to study or work in a situation that requires Hebrew, there is only one choice: learn Hebrew. You can start before Aliyah, or after you arrive, but you will need to devote effort to the study of Hebrew.

Interest Level – Your own level of interest in learning and using Hebrew is a big factor, especially if you live in an environment that supports English. Many Olim want to learn enough Hebrew to understand the news, but newspapers, radio, and television use the highest standards of Hebrew. Articles and broadcasts use very precise language and grammar, whereas Israelis in the street have a much more casual language. You may find yourself very competent in conversation, but still struggling with media reports.

If you are particularly interested in Israelis and Israeli culture, the incentive to build Hebrew skills is greater, as the language really shapes attitudes and experiences. Some things simply don’t translate, or are very differently understood in another language. If, on the other hand, you prefer the company of those who share your native tongue, and consume media in English, you may be satisfied with having enough Hebrew to navigate the elevator at the mall (which is almost zero).

Available Resources – No matter what your age, ability, or interest level – learning Hebrew takes time, effort, and access to instruction. If you are the parent of young children who is working, shopping and socializing in an English environment, you may not have much left over to devote to Hebrew. If you are at leisure or working and living among tolerant Hebrew speakers, you may have a lot of opportunity to hone your Hebrew. If you anticipate having little available time and energy for studying Hebrew, choosing to live in an English-speaking enclave is probably a good idea. Some people have lived in Israel for decades with a sparse vocabulary and do just fine. Others only learn Hebrew after their children grow a bit and they have more available time for study and practice.

Integration in Society – Your level of desire and opportunity to interact with Israelis and consume media in Hebrew can be an important factor in how much Hebrew you will need. There are English-language newspapers, websites, and other sources of news and entertainment, but you may prefer to get information in the original Hebrew and enjoy more of Israeli culture offerings. Perhaps your family and community meet your needs in English, or you may enjoy the company of Hebrew-speakers, too. Your work, shopping, medical care, and other day-to-day activities may satisfy you very well in English, but you may choose to place yourself in situations where Hebrew is at least useful or essential. How much you need and wish to integrate in general Israeli society is your choice, and will influence how much Hebrew you need for Aliyah.

Technology – Computers and mobile phones have changed the language landscape dramatically. Both the need to learn Hebrew and the ability to learn Hebrew have seen serious impact from technological developments. You can now take a picture of a Hebrew street sign and swipe your finger on the text to understand the parking rules. You can speak in English and see instant (but not always reliable) translation in Hebrew. You can type a phrase in Hebrew and get the translation to English. You can view a Hebrew web page through an English translator. All of those changes make it easier to cope with Hebrew in daily life without actually having fluent Hebrew of your own. Conversely, learning Hebrew with your computer or mobile phone is an option.

Programs, apps, podcasts, videos, and other methods offer Hebrew instruction at low or no cost, which you can access at your own pace and schedule. How well you handle technology can influence how much Hebrew you need to get by, and add to the amount of Hebrew you can master. Technology has made Aliyah much easier for these reasons, and also because Israel’s once-notorious bureaucracy is required to offer many services online in a much less daunting, and even friendly, manner. With banking, government, and healthcare solutions online and via apps, Hebrew may still be required, but you can take your time to translate the key points and even memorize the buttons that get you where you need to go.

Advice for Learning Hebrew

So, you may not need much Hebrew for Aliyah, or you may need a whole lot of Hebrew. You may have no desire or talent with learning Hebrew, or your interest and ease of acquisition may be very strong. Whatever the case, if you do decide to learn some Hebrew, here is some advice:

Start early – It takes time to learn and more time to consolidate knowledge and build comfort. Starting before Aliyah and taking it slow may be much easier than starting after arrival when life has suddenly become very busy and challenging.

Use many methods – One book, program, video course, podcast, mobile app, or other resource may be good, but using a variety of methods either together or in succession can offer a much more well-rounded experience. Using several methods reinforces skills and covers gaps and deficiencies in any single method. A variety of learning tools can reduce the tedium and help you keep at it.

Ignore your deficiencies – Many Olim feel intimidated by their beginner status with Hebrew. They struggle with vocabulary, grammar, and accent. Speaking a language where everything is male or female is tough for folks who grew up with gender neutral nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Disregard how terrible your Hebrew may sound to Israelis. They want to practice their awful English on you, and it is a choice between improving your Hebrew or their English. Don’t give an inch (or centimetre)! Keep speaking and learn a few phrases to get people to talk slowly or repeat what they just said. Over time, even conversations overhead on the bus will start to sound like words instead of a stream of unintelligible noise.

Make Friends – Israelis, for the most part, are a gregarious bunch. They are often glad to meet Olim who are making an effort to learn Hebrew. They may wish to have a cooperative exchange where each of you gets to improve their foreign language skills, or they may simply be willing to work it out with you in a combination of Hebrew, hand signs, and face-making. Regular interaction, especially in speaking Hebrew, will improve your skills and raise your confidence level to where you will need to ignore the grammar and usage deficiencies of Israelis instead of your own.

Use your phone – Messaging on your mobile phone in Hebrew is assisted by translation software and spelling correction. While both are not as reliable as one would hope, they are extremely handy. Get Hebrew characters installed for your phone’s keyboard, and start messaging and phoning people. Listen to music and podcasts. View videos. Use a language teaching app. Your phone may already be your constant companion, but it can be used for more than watching cute kittens.

Read Hebrew – It may be slow going at first, but reading is a good way to learn more Hebrew. With the help of your trusty phone or a dictionary, you can get through a few minutes of the newspaper or read the back of the cereal box. You may find yourself looking up definitions of the same word several times before it sticks, but one day you will breeze past it without a second thought. Hebrew in print really lets you examine a word and see the root, prefix, and suffix structure that make Hebrew so unique.

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