overcoming difficulty

A Little Tip for Hebrew Learners

There is a common sound in Hebrew that is a dead giveaway that an English speaker didn’t grow up with the language. It’s the sound associated with the letters  ח and  כ. We often transliterate it with “ch” or “kh” (that’s been my practice here) but the sound simply doesn’t exist in English.

People who learn Hebrew as children pick up the sound pretty easily, but for adults it can be harder.  We usually tell adult students “it’s like the ch in Bach” which is only much help if they speak German. Here’s what I tell students:

  1. Lift the rear part of your tongue to your soft palate. Blow air out around it.
  2. Think of a cat hissing. Now make that sound very short.
  3. That’s ח and  כ.

If you practice it, it will come. Most adults have trouble at first, and then it gets easier. Make silly games with it to practice in private.  Substitute the ח sound for H in the sentence below:

Hi, I’m here to see Harry. (Khi, I’m khere to see kHarry.)

It sounds ridiculous, but if you keep doing it, your mouth will get used to it.

If you have tried, and you are quite sure you cannot make that sound, here’s another tip:  do not substitute a K sound for it. I get the impression that in some college Hebrew classes teachers allow that, and the trouble is that it will stand out like a neon flasher in synagogue.

Instead, substitute an H for it.  “H” is not completely correct, but it will get you closer to the sound. It also puts your mouth close to the right shape for the sound. “K” builds a bad habit. “H” leaves room for improvement. You may find, over time, that you will pick up the sound naturally.

If you are making the effort to learn some Hebrew, good for you! Every bit of it that you learn will help you feel more at home around Jews. More than almost anything else, the Hebrew language is our common ground. Every scrap of Hebrew that you learn will pay rich benefits in Jewish connection.

I learned Hebrew as an adult; started in my 40’s. It can be done, and if you are making the effort, kol hakavod – all honor to you!

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

14 thoughts on “A Little Tip for Hebrew Learners”

  1. With the college Hebrew classes–does it seem more common among folks with Biblical Hebrew or modern Hebrew backgrounds (if you have a sense for it)? I have a pet hypothesis about this problem from my own teaching experiences.

      1. I suspect a lot of Biblical teachers are more worried about reading the letters correctly and let the kh slip to k for kaf. Lots of non-Jewish students in college Biblical, fewer in college Modern.

          1. A lot of programs teach het as a raspy “h,” as in Arabic, and don’t get hung up on the kaf. They also try teaching the guttural-ish kof as in Arabic, a palatalized tet, etc., and I think the result is to “let it go” on the kaf without dagesh.

            We used modern Israeli pronunciation where I taught, but some fellow grad students had seminary-style training and had a transition to make.

            1. I had a bit of a transition to make, myself, when I acquired a Hebrew tutor in rabbinical school. I have some perceptual quirks, and he was wonderful in helping me get past them. However as an Israeli whose parents had made aliyah byfrom Iraq, he was insistent that I learn to vocalize the ayin, which my American teacher at synagogue had said was “silent.”

  2. For some reason, having taken French for many, many years I had an easier time of making the “ch” sound when learning Hebrew, but it still took a ton of practice to get it right. My Hebrew teacher said my pronunciation of “R” (Resh) still sounded French (despite my practicing so hard to get it right!) at the end of our classes, but oh well, I try! I learned most of the Hebrew basics, enough to read the labels at the grocery store and to haggle a bit at the market. I’m sure I still sound like a tourist, though. I probably don’t get the “locals” deal at the market despite my efforts! A woman in my art class was also originally from the US, but had lived in Israel for 40 years, her accent was not the best. In fact, it was pretty rough, but she was completely fluent. I envied her. I’d rather have bad pronunciation and speak the language fluently than pretty good pronunciation and speak barely any of the language! Your method is a great way to practice this sound. Thanks for posting this!

    1. That’s interesting, I tend to think of the pronunciation of the letter resh by Israelis to be rather like the French (but I don’t speak ANY French, so what do I know?)

      My accent was a constant source of amusement to Israelis, because it was not any of the American accents with which they are familiar. I got into ridiculous arguments with people, who would say, “You’re not an American, your accent isn’t American” and I would say, “Yes I am!” Eventually I learned to explain that I was from Tennessee, and that solved the mystery. Apparently I speak Hebrew with a Southern accent and rather too much Biblical and medieval vocabulary.

      Of course, I’ve lived in California for 29 years, and people here still think I talk funny, too. Some of us are just not going to completely transcend our native tongue!

  3. One thing that English folk have trouble with is the Scottish “ch” sound, as in “loch”(almost always pronounced as “lock” by folks from England….tends to irritate Scots somewhat… 😉 ….)….so, is it the same sound as loch?

    1. I looked it up, and yes, both sounds may be vocalized by the sound the philologists write as /x/. The Greek X is also pronounced that way, which is I think where the philologists get the symbol.

    2. It’s definitely the same sound. Or, as an actual Scottish person told me “Och, when yon wee cat’s swallowed too much hair, ye ken?” I did ken that noise, for sure. No Scot ever has to be told twice how to say the Hebrew letters!

  4. Im trying to learn Hebrew….just past my 60th birthday 🙂 …..just had a memory of when I was at grammar school, aged around 16/17, and doing big exams – O levels and Highers. I was thinking about doing Getman, and Mr Struthers, one of the languages teachers, asked me if I had lived in or been to Germany, as the accent I had when speaking German suggested that: I said no, but that my grandmother was Jewish, and spoke Yiddish, and might that be the reason? Thanks for sparking that memory, Rabbi Ruth. I was very close to my grandmother….lived with her till I was give, and then just two streets away. My birth name has Mary in it, after her sister….Im Miriam Alexandra. Long story to that!

    1. Good for you! Since you had a Yiddish speaker around when you were growing up, there’s likely more Hebrew in your brain than you know. Some words will seem familiar!

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