Guest Post from an English Speaker learning Hebrew through Russian

After recommending Tyson’s Seburn’s post “Z is the 1st letter of their alphabet” , related to the experiences of American children studying at a school in Moscow, I heard from a number of teachers who found the video fascinating. One of them is Sharleen Harty, who has had the unique experience of learning a language she doesn’t know through another language she doesn’t know!

Photo by Gil Epshtein
Photo by Gil Epshtein

Here is what she wrote.

Sharleen Harty is a new immigrant to Israel & can be contacted at or visit her website:

How I am learning Hebrew – in 2012

by Sharleen Harty


Never before as a ‘linguist’ (I studied English, French, German and Italian at University of Cape Town; English, Afrikaans and French at school in South Africa; on-line Spanish in a USA college), have I had the opportunity to explore a language in the land in which it was born, died and then revived. Sixty-four years after Israel became an independent state, Hebrew is alive and well – with a meaning much as it had in Biblical times.

During the first five months as new olim (immigrants) in Israel, most non-Hebrew speakers attend five hours each day of intensive (and free) Hebrew exercises at Ulpan. However, my twenty fellow students in Akko were entirely Russian speakers (which is not unusual in the north apparently), and the teacher spoke very little English – so at the end of each day my output was more Russian than Hebrew.

I was confused on many levels by the daunting process of learning a new language and alphabet (Hebrew) through the context of listening to another language (Russian) that I did not know. Even the homework was largely presented in Russian and Hebrew. With the help of various (free) computer programs I was able to: observe and listen to a clearly articulated Hebrew audio track on-line (as opposed to the dominant Russian heard in class); cultivate a more authentic Israeli (and less Russian- or English-sounding) Hebrew accent using transliteration and audio playbacks; learn the Hebrew alphabet, and build a small vocabulary that I could use through the daily words posted on Facebook – visit

By Gil Epshtein
By Gil Epshtein

The best classroom, however, was definitely out and about in the sleepy, 6,000-year-old fishing village of Akko itself. I learned Hebrew words and context from each memorable encounter, much as a child learns his or her mother tongue (English for me) until it becomes ‘habitus’ or second nature. Another creative way to acquire Hebrew vocabulary was to listen to Israeli musicians (my favourite was Idan Raichel), while following the transliterated meaning and English words on-line. If only I could sing it would be an even more useful way to form and practise my Hebrew accent.

All Akko wanted to practise their English so I assisted two single Russian moms studying to be English teachers, taught oral bagrut at the local high school and was treated like a celebrity while teaching in Arab and Druze village schools. I may have stumbled on a new career as the sole, native-speaking English teacher in and around Akko. If more Anglos settled here I believe that we could easily start an English school – or at the very least teach the meaning of words and sentences through mime/charades.

I stopped the ‘Hebrew in Russian’ input after one month and several migraines of being “Lost in Translation” (a must see movie for those who are experiencing the sensation of being lost in a new language, culture and environment)*.  However, I continued to acquire knowledge as I set up a home in Akko, made friends, networked and found work in the schools. Being creative with my Hebrew language procedure allowed me the freedom to prioritize my daytime activities, and study at night if necessary. I even indulged my passion for archaeological meandering and exploration in the old Crusader-now Arab city, followed by a swim at Akko’s country club and processing Hebrew during my laps.

According to new olim have eighteen months in which to use free Ulpan lessons, so it remains an option if my anthropological hypothesis does not bear fruit within a year. If observing while participating does work, however, Arabic is next on my list…not to mention Russian.

*Two hilarious miscommunications during Ulpan: I thought I understood – to my horror – that a Russian student wanted to “drive drugs” in Israel (actually trucks) and that Israelis like to go to the store to buy “snakes” (actually snacks)

P.S. I moved to Nahariyya in 2013 and will resume my Ulpan practise there to supplement and speed up the Hebrew I imbibe daily.


2 thoughts on “Guest Post from an English Speaker learning Hebrew through Russian”

  1. Very interesting read, Naomi & Sharleen–exactly the commentary inspired by the video on my post. 🙂 Do you consider yourself a fluent Hebrew speaker now?

    Thanks again,
    Tyson Seburn

  2. Hi Tyson,

    I am definitely NOT anywhere near fluent in Hebrew & that experience soured me on both Hebrew & Russian: I am still trying to undo the damage as I now have a resistance to learning Hebrew whereas before I had a passion …also, I have been teaching in the Arab sector so that language is easier on my ear. I protested Ulpan methods to the Ulpan coordinator, but they have been doing this for decades with masses of immigrants & don’t really care. Even excellent students with an amazing teacher cannot learn/retain a language this way (I did a mini survey of Ulpan graduates after trying it a 2nd unsuccessful time)!

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