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Hebrew as a bridge to Arabic

  Tags: Hebrew | Arabic
 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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 Message 1 of 5
27 October 2007 at 11:26am | IP Logged 
I've heard Hebrew is a far easier language to learn for native english speakers than Arabic is. Since both languages are semitic and have a lot of common vocabulary and grammar, would it make sense to learn Hebrew first even though it's a rather minor language in comparison?
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 Message 2 of 5
28 October 2007 at 6:11pm | IP Logged 
Your logic is not flawed, and if your proposition is correct and you fully intend to learn both languages, this might be a good strategy. I myself have never learned any Hebrew, however, and for all I know it may indeed be somewhat less complex than Arabic in specific areas of grammar or pronunciation; still, I am just not convinced that Hebrew is “much easier” for native English speakers to learn than Arabic. I have always read that the Semitic languages were very closely related and assumed that this meant they were similar in most respects. It may be easier for Jews because of their whole nexus of cultural support and expectations, and for theological types because they focus only on the skill of reading a limited set of texts. It is indeed also true that the US Foreign Service Institute ranks Hebrew a level III language in terms of difficulty, whereas Arabic is the lone non-East Asian in the level IV category of greatest difficulty. However, this margin of complexity can be obviated by other factors such as greater interest and motivation on the learner’s part. The fact that you acknowledge that Hebrew is relatively minor in comparison is not insignificant. That is why I said that this “might” be a good strategy presuming you were sure that you would ultimately learn both. It is not such a good strategy if there is any doubt. There are many things that you can do in life besides pursue the study of languages, and your initial enthusiasm for learning lots of them may not prove lasting. Thus, I think it is probably a better strategy for most people to begin learning major languages than minor languages, for they will serve you better if you end up going down another road than the path of the polyglot.

All that said, I really think it is harmful to your psychological state of preparation to allow yourself to think of a language that interests you as “difficult.” You should indeed know that some languages will require a greater investment of time than others, but if you are going on a journey of exploration that will deepen your understanding of a living phenomenon that interests you, then this is actually for the better as it makes the learning experience all the richer.

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William Camden
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 Message 3 of 5
07 November 2007 at 10:30am | IP Logged 
If it is Arabic that really interests you, you should learn it directly, not approach it through an allegedly easier cognate language.

You might find Hebrew is not all that easy, and be discouraged before even approaching Arabic.   
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 Message 4 of 5
08 November 2007 at 6:27am | IP Logged 
As someone who studied Hebrew for several years before studying Arabic, I can tell you that knowing some Hebrew definitely helped with Arabic. Actually, my knowledge of Arabic enabled me to more-or-less skip an entire year of college-level Arabic. On the other hand, one of my friends claims that most of the people she knows who studied Arabic after Hebrew found their knowledge of Hebrew a hindrance rather than an aid after about a year of study (this was not my experience, obviously, but mine may have been a fluke).

I imagine if an Arabic student were to go and study Hebrew, s/he would find it a lot easier, too, so you could always study Arabic first and then go on to study Hebrew after, if you need both languages. I can't make an objective comparison of the two languages, but I don't think that the difficulty level of Arabic is actually significantly greater. But perhaps that's only because my Hebrew made most of the structures familiar. In issues of pronunciation Hebrew is easier, but the various "foreign" sounds of Arabic really aren't all that hard, I don't think.

I will say, though, that while I'm not necessarily a huge fan of the al-Kitaab series (the vocabulary is silly and a lot of the drills seemed rather useless to me), I found it rather better than the various Hebrew texts I worked from. In particular because -- as I recall -- one might never realise from the Hebrew books I used (sadly I can't give you citations off the top of my head) that the Hebrew morphology is primarily based on a triconsonantal root (shoresh), whereas in al-Kitaab they point out that Arabic is based on a triconsonantal root (djither) somewhere in the middle of the first volume.

Hopefully this is of some use to you. I'd agree with the sentiments expressed in other responses that one should go for the more useful language first, though, whichever language that might be in your particular situation.
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 Message 5 of 5
11 December 2011 at 12:15pm | IP Logged 
I am in Israel and learning Hebrew If you wish to learn Arabic, then by all means go straight to Arabic. Don't spend your time learning Hebrew if you aren't interested in it. Also, it's not going to help THAT much unless you're fairly fluent. While there certainly is some vocabulary that is similar, it will be so unfamiliar to you as an English speaker that it will make no difference if you learn it through Arabic or Hebrew.

Also, I somewhat disagree in terms of Hebrew being a "minor" language. Although really I'm not even sure what you mean by "minor". If you care about stuff like entrepreneurship, science, or technology, then Hebrew is far more useful. If you care about Judaism, then Hebrew is far more useful. If you care about Islam or Arab culture, then Arabic is more useful of course.

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