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The National Middle East Language Research Center of Brigham Young University, in Utah, created an extremely useful handbook for Hebrew learners. They have kindly allowed us to publish extracts from it. This is the third blog in the series.
Do you feel that you sound like a tourist in Israel?
Get some great tips on how to improve your Hebrew pronunciation!

If you are studying Hebrew as an adult, the chances that you will ever be able to speak it without a traceable accent are not high - attaining a native-like pronunciation is one of the most difficult challenges foreign language learners face.

On the one hand, you should know that a variety of accents is a normal phenomenon, especially in countries like Israel - think, for example, of Russian or South American immigrants who speak perfect Hebrew while retaining their native accents, or about speakers of Middle Eastern heritage who retain the guttural chet and ayin in their speech. So it is not all bad - people may find your accent interesting or intriguing. On the other hand, a foreign accent will mark you as an “other”, which may at times make you uncomfortable or, in some situations, affect your socialization.

What is it that makes an accent foreign? By and large, this “foreignness” manifests itself in the lack of ability to pronounce some of the sounds of the target language or to pronounce sounds in the way a native speaker would pronounce them, and in a speech rhythm that is markedly different from that of a native speaker in both speed and intonation. While languages share much of their speech sound inventories, each language has a number of unique sounds.

For example, Hebrew has the chet and the chaf, which English does not have, and English has the “th” sound while Hebrew does not. English speakers who learn to speak Hebrew initially find it difficult to pronounce chet and the chaf, producing them as “h,” and Hebrew speakers, unaccustomed to the “th” sound often pronounce it as “d” or “z”.

English tends to aspirate the sounds “p,” “t,” and “k” in stressed syllables (aspiration is a puff of air following the consonant sound). Hebrew does not aspirate these sounds or aspirates them to a lesser degree. As an English speaker, you will have a tendency to aspirate these sounds automatically without much control over the degree of aspiration. You will struggle with the Israeli “r,” pronounced deep in the throat with no involvement of the tongue, as opposed to the English “r” which is much softer and whose quality depends to a large extent on the position of the tongue against the side of your mouth.

You may be relieved to learn that Hebrew has a five-vowel system, i e a o u, with no variants such as long and short “i” (sleep vs. slip) that speakers of Hebrew have such difficulties with when they speak English. Awareness of such differences is the first step toward developing a solid pronunciation in Hebrew, one that reflects good control of the language even if you are not at the “near-native” level.

Like every other language, Hebrew has a unique “rhythm.” In Hebrew, stress usually falls on the last syllable of the word, with certain classes of exceptions. Within any given utterance, there are relative degrees of stress (secondary, tertiary, etc.) that are fairly predictable, and while the intonation patterns of Hebrew are different from those of English, they can be acquired almost automatically once you have developed keen awareness of such patterns and had sufficient exposure to the language. The same is true for syllables that are slurred over and other elements that create the impression of native speech.

So how can you improve your pronunciation? Here are some ideas:
  • Become aware of the sounds of Hebrew, making mental notes regarding sounds that need special attention.
  • Ask your teacher for tips on how to produce the difficult sounds physically. Putting your hand on the teacher’s mouth or throat while he or she produces Hebrew sounds may help more than any explanation.
  • Practice producing each sound repeatedly, watching yourself in a mirror. When you think that you can produce the sounds reliably in isolation, try repeatedly pronouncing entire words that contain them.
  • Make a list of pairs of words that differ along the feature you are trying to learn (e.g., parallel words with he and chet, such as horim “parents” and chorim “holes,” or words with identical sounds yet different accentuation, such as birá “capital” and bíra “beer”). Listen carefully every time you hear a word from your list. If you can, get a native speaker to carefully pronounce words from your list and see if you can tell which is which. The more pairs of vocabulary items you memorize that differ along this feature, the more real the difference between the two sounds will seem to you.
  • Find a computer program that allows you to tape yourself, play back your recording and compare short segments of your taped speech to identical segments in native speech.
  • Listen to taped segments of native speech, paying attention to prosodic features such as accents and peaks within sentences. Memorize short sentences and paragraphs, having learned them from recorded native speech. Work on speed and sentence flow.
  • Watch movies and TV programs in Hebrew, even if you do not understand the bulk of what is said. Listen to the rhythm. Speak or sing along.
  • Speak in class as much as you can. Do anything that would increase your exposure to the language and will give you the opportunity to practice speaking.
Be patient - you are likely to sound like a tourist for quite some time. But even at the very beginning of your training, if you focus on the pronunciation of short sentences or paragraphs, you can have amazing results.

Extract taken with kind permission from ‘Handbook for Students of Hebrew’, the National Middle East Language Research Center. www.nmelrc.org.


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