Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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19 Adar 5761 - March 14, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Welcoming back R' Zvi Zobin as he guides us in

Why Is My Hebrew Reading So Slow?

Part I

(Even though I can zoom through English!)

Many people reading Hebrew feel frustrated. They can zoom through English, yet when they try to read Hebrew, they feel clumsy and handicapped. Not only people new to Torah, but also many who have been through cheder and gone on to yeshiva feel that their performance when reading Hebrew is very inferior to their English reading.

This feeling is mirrored by many specialists in Reading Remediation who meet with frustration when trying to apply their expertise to the remediation of reading Hebrew.

There are many aspects to this problem and, as we work through them, we will see how problems with each aspect can interact with the other aspects to increase the level of frustration in reading Hebrew comfortably.

1. Simple words and complex words

A simple word can be identified instantaneously by sight- recognition of the word as a single unit.

A complex word comprises a core, root-part and additional letters which modify the meaning of the core. Reading a complex word therefore comprises

a. analyzing the word to isolate the root

b. understanding the root

c. identifying the ancillary letters

d. identifying the way which the ancillary words modify a root

e. applying the effect of the ancillary words to the root

The meaning of a simple word can be recognized at sight. The amount of time and brain power required to extract the meaning from a complex word depends on the complexity of the word and the sophistication of the power of the ancillary letters to modify the meaning of the root.

Most words of the English language are simple words. Ancillary letters -- prefixes and suffixes -- nearly always only modify the meanings of the roots in a simplistic way.

Most words of the Hebrew language are complex words. Ancillary letters -- prefixes, suffixes and letters inside the root -- modify the meaning according to complex schedules to form many permutations of meaning.

All words of Classical Hebrew are derived from several hundred three-letter roots. Words are developed from the roots by a rigid system of word-structures (binyonim). Within the parameters of the system, the relationships between the binyonim is completely logical and differences are effected by permutations of limited schedules of prefixes, suffixes and root-parts. Furthermore, in certain word forms, one or two of the three root letters might be missing.

Therefore, efficient understanding of Hebrew words requires not only accurate identification of the letters but also:

a) knowledge of the various root words

b) knowledge of how the root letters change according to the various word forms

c) thorough knowledge of the effect of the ancillary letters

d) knowledge of how the ancillary letters interact with the root letters

Therefore, in order to enable understanding of each word, the reader of Hebrew needs to have far more brainpower available after letter and vowel identification than is required for understanding English words.

2. The "Information Content" of each word.

Because each word of Hebrew usually contains more information than words of English, one, two or three words of Hebrew can be the equivalent of a whole sentence of English, and a sentence of Hebrew can be the equivalent of a whole paragraph of English. Therefore, if a proficient reader of English tries to read a whole sentence of Hebrew in "one breath" as he does when reading English, he will often find that he has become overloaded with information and is unable to think it through efficiently. Actually, the reader of Hebrew needs to read one, two or three words at one go and then stop to think.

3. Verb, Subject, Object Relationships

In the English language, the subject of a verb precedes the verb and is either a noun or a pronoun. The direct or indirect object of the verb follows the verb.

Example: He said, "Go to the store." / Jack said that he has no time.

In contrast, every verb of Hebrew contains a built-in pronoun subject. If the sentence identifies the subject, then the pronoun is ignored. A noun following the verb might be the subject of the verb, or it might be the object, depending on the context.


Vayomer -- And He said

Vayomer Moshe -- And He said, "Moshe!"

Vayomer Moshe el Bnei Yisroel -- And He said "Moshe!" to the Children of Israel... Or:

-- And He said

-- And Moshe said,

-- And Moshe said to the Children of Israel

Therefore, when reading every verb, the reader of Hebrew needs to look ahead to the next few words and then back to the verb to enable him to see how to understand that verb.

4. Words are usually written without vowels. Therfore `reading' involves automatically adding suitable voweling which itself requires the reader to have a full word-bank of whole words.

5. Often, one set of consonants can "carry" several different sets of voweling to form different words. The exact choice depends on the content. Therefore, often, the reader needs to read ahead to see what the context is before he can decide with any certainty what the word really is. Sometimes, several alternative words might be suitable candidates and there might even be a dispute among the Rishonim.

[Ed. The following example is based on a true story of the Ibn Ezra visiting the Rambam incognito. As his ill luck would have it, he was accused of stealing a garment from the vestibule and forced to pay its value. In protest, he grafittied the following words on the Rambam's house:]

[ED. typesetter in hebrew - shin lamed mem hey five times]

which can be read as:

Shelomo shilmo Shlomo salmo shleima?

6. Texts are often written without punctuation. The reader needs to sense what the effective punctuation is. This might only come through familiarity with the style of the text and awareness of the role of different "operator words" within the text. Consequently, the reader cannot "read" the text like the text of a work written in English. Instead, he must read through a block of text several times, building up the meaning as he becomes more familiar with the text. This means that a proficient reader of English will be dismayed by not being able to read through a text with the same facility as he reads an English text.

To be continued...


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