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The differences between English and Hebrew

Introduction: Hebrew is a Semitic language in the Afro-Asiatic family, and shares many features with Arabic. Hebrew is the official language of Israel, and the language of the Jewish religion. As such it is used every day by the approximately 7 million Israelis, and it is spoken and understood to varying degrees by Jews across the world.

Hebrew is the ancient language of the peoples that lived in the region of the Middle East around Jerusalem. It fell into disuse as a spoken language following the expulsion of the Jews from their land by the Roman invaders in the 2nd century CE. It was revived during the Zionistic movement in the 19th century, at which time a large new vocabulary was created in order that the language could be used for communication in the modern world. Hebrew is regarded by Israelis as an essential instrument in forging a homogeneous nation out of a people who have immigrated from all over the world.

As a Semitic language, there are many aspects of Hebrew that are very different from English. This can make it difficult for ESL students, especially as they begin to learn English.

Alphabet: Hebrew is written horizontally from right to left, like Arabic. Books open to what, for English native speakers, would be the last page. The alphabet is made up of 22 consonants, 5 of which are written in a different form if they appear at the end of a word. Some consonants can be modified by the addition of a dot to represent a vowel, as an aid to children and those learning Hebrew as a foreign language. Modern Hebrew text, both handed-written and printed, consists of consonants, spaces and western punctuation. Hand-written Hebrew does not join the letters, unlike Arabic and most hand-written English.

Since the basic Hebrew alphabet does not consist of vowels, it is not surprising that some Hebrew learners of English omit them when beginning to write English. Beginners may also have problems following the words from left to right as they read.

Phonology: Hebrew has 5 or 6 vowel sounds and more than 20 consonant sounds. The lack of discrimination in Hebrew between long and short vowels results in the familiar problem of correctly pronouncing English words such as ship/sheep or bit/beat. As with many learners of English, Hebrew native speakers struggle with the (/θ/ /ð/) sounds, such as in the words then, think and clothes. They may also have difficulties with the /w/ and /v/ sounds, pronouncing vine as wine, or vice versa.

Hebrew usually stresses the last or penultimate syllable in a word. This contrasts with English where syllable-stress is much more random. This may lead to Israeli students using intonation patterns that mark them as non-native speakers of English.

Grammar - Verb/Tense: Hebrew verb grammar is similar to English in that it has past, present and future tenses, conditionals, imperatives and infinitives. It has the active and passive voice and differentiates between transitive and intransitive. There are some minor differences, however, than can lead to incorrect English verb use. For example, Hebrew does not use the copula to be in the present tense as in English, so beginners may say sentences such is I happy today!

Grammar - Other: Hebrew word order is more flexible than the rigid Subject-Verb-Object syntax of the English language. Written and spoken Hebrew sentences will often start with the verb, followed by the subject. Adjectives generally comes after the noun they modify. These syntactic differences are sometimes reflected in the spoken and written English of Israeli ESL students

Hebrew is a much more inflected language than English. For example, Hebrew has more verb endings, nouns and pronouns vary in form according to the preposition that precedes them, and adjectives must agree in number and gender with the nouns they modify. (Hebrew has the masculine and feminine genders.) The relative simplicity of English in this aspect of grammar is a welcome relief for Hebrew native-speakers, whose problems with the English language lie elsewhere.

Hebrew has no indefinite article, and use of the definite article does not coincide exactly with English usage. This results in typical mistakes such as Do you have dog?

Vocabulary: Since modern Hebrew partly consists of vocabulary that was borrowed from other languages at the time that Hebrew was revived in the 19th century, Israeli ESL students might encounter words that are familiar to them. On the other hand, the significant differences in the writing systems impair the possibility of recognizing English/Hebrew cognates when reading.

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