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:
- Lift the rear part of your tongue to your soft palate. Blow air out around it.
- Think of a cat hissing. Now make that sound very short.
- 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!