Take-Aways & Results of my 90-Day Hebrew Challenge

I just completed the Hebrew Add1Challenge – I have now studied Hebrew for 90 days (plus a few days non-intensively outside the challenge) and 85 hours total. I think my results are quite good, for having started from scratch. Be sure to turn on the subtitles. I added English subtitles to all my Hebrew Challenge videos:

I actually recorded one video at least every 30 days, because that’s part of the Add1Challenge idea. If you want to watch my progress through these videos, I included them at the bottom of this post. But first I’ll write about my biggest take-aways of this challenge. By the way, if you’re now motivated to do an Add1Challenge yourself, there’s a new one starting in a few days I believe: the Add1ChallengeFull disclosure: the links to Add1Challenge are affiliate links, but as you can see in the videos, I’m a fan of this challenge and would recommend it anyway. If you prefer a non-affiliate link, go straight to www.add1challenge.com.

What I learned

I like challenges because they are concentrated language learning. Being concentrated, they make it more obvious where the problems lie. In my case, one problem that I already knew about was my lack of a language-learning routine. This was one of the reasons I signed up for the Add1Challenge in the first place, to have social pressure help me form a language learning routine. I’m not 100% there yet, but I’ve been learning Hebrew much more regularly than I otherwise would.

Another problem that I encountered: learning vocabulary that sounds different than any other word I know. One of the advantages of being a polyglot is that you can draw on so many different languages for mnemonics. I did take advantage of that, but due to the different phonology and the root consonant system, there were still Hebrew words for which I couldn’t find a good mnemonic. My solution, which I implemented quite late: rather than cramming too many strange new words, also look at word families within the target language and learn those. For example: ‘inyan (interest), la’inyan (to the point), yesh li inyan be… (I am interested in…), me’anyen (interesting), me’unyan (interested). Unfortunately I haven’t yet found a root-based dictionary of Hebrew, that would have been really helpful. If you know one, please let me know!

At the beginning of the challenge, I focused a lot on Anki, simply learning lots of words and also quite a bit of grammar. Later, I found that all these words weren’t really doing much for me, because I had trouble recognizing words in regular-speed speech and I needed too much time to come up with words myself when building phrases. I then remembered Anthony Lauder’s excellent talk from the Polyglot Conference in Budapest, where he told us that the human brain actually cannot process language at the speed as it is used, if it were to rely on a vocabulary list. The only way we can speak as fast as we do is because our brain chunks phrases. To say “I’m hungry, let’s go have falafel”, your brain does not look for the words for “I”, “am”, “hungry” and the like, it probably has a stored memory of “I’m hungry”, and also “let’s go”, and then maybe looks up “have” and “falafel”. So it only does 4 dictionary look-ups rather than 8. And language learners do 8 look-ups for this kind of phrase, that’s why they can’t speak or understand faster.

There is no way around it, you have to allow your brain the time to see & store chunks. You can speed up the process though. Here are some ways:

  • Put chunks of words on your flashcards (rather than each card being one word)
  • Challenge yourself to write X sentences using the same chunk
  • Have tons of conversations or self-talk exercises, so that the most common phrases become chunks that you can recall without effort
  • Select a few chunks beforehand and try to use each of them several times in your next conversation.
  • (Possibly) if you’re a fast reader or have a lot of time on your hands, blast through a target-language book in a few days. You’ll pick up a lot of the author’s favourite chunks. It won’t work if you need more days though, because you’ll forget chunks before you see them again.

I will definitely use these insights in my next challenge! At this point, I haven’t yet reached my ultimate goal with Hebrew though, so I feel that I should continue studying it for a while longer, even though the motivation isn’t as high. I’m also drawn to improve my other languishing languages. On the other hand, there’s another Add1Challenge soon and Swedish or Vietnamese are looking shiny…

Day 0: Start of the Challenge

Day 20

Day 30

Day 60

Day 90