The hugely popular language-learning app Duolingo recently launched the beta version of its Hebrew language course, giving millions of people an accessible way to learn the basics of the language. But is Hebrew a useful language to learn?
(Of course there are reasons to learn a language aside from how useful it is, such as a deep interest in a particular country or culture. But some people also need to have a logical reason to devote a lot of time to learning a language.)
Some people (including many Hebrew speakers) will tell you that Hebrew is useless. They will say that it’s only spoken in one small country (Israel). They will also tell you that Israelis speak English very well so you can get by with English there. These points aren’t wrong, but miss a big part of the story, in my opinion.
“Hebrew is only spoken in one tiny country…”
It’s true that Hebrew is mainly spoken in Israel, a very small country with a small population. But it’s a country that’s a big draw for travellers, some of whom fall in love with the place and stay for an extended period of time. Some of them volunteer on a kibbutz (as I once did for a period of around 3 months). Some of them work in the city (as I once did when I worked at a hotel in the Jewish part of Jerusalem for around 3 months). Israel is a country that, for some reason, hooks a lot of people and provides them with a big experience despite being so small.
Israelis also love to travel, so it’s very likely that you will meet some outside of Israel too. I’ve met Israelis in numerous places around Asia, including Japan, Thailand, Nepal, and most recently in Vietnam.
Knowing Hebrew is also an ice breaker and conversation point with Jewish people around the world. Aside from Israeli Jews, most Jews don’t know much Modern Hebrew. But since Hebrew is connected with their religious traditions and cultural history, they’re usually impressed by your knowledge of the language and respect your effort to learn it.
“Israelis speak English very well…”
Well, this is often true but not always. The mainstream image of an Israeli is a secular ashkenazi Jew from Greater Tel Aviv or Haifa who graduated university and speaks English fluently. There are lots of people like that, and when I spent time with people like that it was usually quite possible to converse in English. But I also met lots of people who did not speak much English. Those people were often religious, sephardic Jews, from Jerusalem or smaller towns, working class, older people, part of the Arabic minority, or Jewish immigrants from places like the former Soviet Union. During my three months in Jerusalem, I had many amazing conversations in Hebrew with people who fell into one or more of those categories.
There were also several times when I was traveling across Israel, or traveling to or from Egypt and Jordan, and I used my Hebrew skills to solve some big problems with bus and taxi drivers. I remember one case in particular when I rode in a shared minibus from the Egyptian border to Tel Aviv, and the driver was an immigrant from Russia who didn’t speak a word of English (but was fluent in Hebrew). There was a dispute over baggage size that I had to mediate, as well as a disagreement over dropoff locations. He spoke no English, the other 4 passengers spoke no Hebrew, and at the end of the journey one of them joked “How much do we owe you?”
On top of using Hebrew with people who didn’t know English well, I also spoke Hebrew with many people who did know English well, especially in group situations. If you are able to communicate, they are happy to maintain the pace of the conversation by speaking Hebrew.
Hebrew is definitely a language that has enriched my life, and even though I only use it occasionally these days, my knowledge of Hebrew has give me many great experiences.