A Hebrew Study Plan

While there have been some ups and downs in my fitness training recently, I think all in all things are going well.  My running is pain free, the climbing is getting better, and I’m losing weight.  All good news.  Hebrew study however has been disastrous.  I go on short binges where I am diligent, and then I fall off the wagon.  When I restart, I’ve forgotten so much that I have to retrace the same steps over again.

Why is it that I can be reasonably disciplined in my physical training, but not in my Hebrew study?  Perhaps it is because Hebrew is much harder for me than working out.  I’m no Ryan Hall, but I’ve been working out consistently for a number of years.  Exercise isn’t work to me. I get true pleasure out of a run, even a bad run, and spending time at the climbing gym is like being a kid again.  Honestly, I’d rather be working out than doing just about anything else.  Languages, however, are a different story.  I have moderate dyslexia which infringes on my ability to learn new languages.  I’m also basically tone deaf, which also doesn’t help.  It’s a challenge.  To be half as good at a language as the average person I have to work twice as hard and when I get home from a long day at work, spending time with the Hebrew books is the last thing I want to do.  Still, the study is important to me and I’ve got to knuckle down.  To help get over the initial hurdle of getting the barebones understanding of Hebrew I’ve developed the loose outlines of a plan to take me through the early stages of learning the language.

First, I am going to develop a streak.  When I started running in earnest a number of years ago one trick that kept me going, even though I sucked, and was terribly slow, was a running streak.  If I told myself I had to run every day, then there was no excuse good enough to not run.  As I make the slow recovery from a series of injuries, I’ve at least temporarily given up on running streaks, but the same principle of no excuse ever being good enough, could help me with Hebrew.  If I must study Hebrew everyday, then there is never an excuse good enough to not study.  When I was doing the running streak, the requirement was one mile, with Hebrew, I think I am going to make it fifteen minutes.  Starting tomorrow morning, I am going to begin a streak of studying Hebrew for at least fifteen minutes everyday.  It isn’t much, but it’s a start.

Second, I need to set bench marks.  In running I’m proud when I hit double digit long runs, then thirty miles in a week, then fifty.  One thousand in a year is a reason to celebrate, two thousand is even better.  I need to do something similar with Hebrew.  Record the time spent, and celebrate when I reach key goals like fifty or one hundred hours of study.  As of today, I’ve spent about twenty five hours in Hebrew study.  I am going to set the goal of reaching 100 hours of study by the start of the spring academic term, which, for convenience sake, I am going to peg to Monday, January 14th.  That’s nineteen weeks from now, so I’ll have to average about four hours of study per week, or twelve hours a month.  That’s more than fifteen minutes a day, but with some longer sessions thrown in it is doable.  I’ll need to remind myself of this the next time I want to watch a Giants game instead of getting in the studying.

Come the spring term, it’ll be time to take this up a notch and start learning in a more academic environment, most likely Hebrew I at my alma mater, Brooklyn College.  For now, let’s see how fifteen minutes a day, and twelve hours a month, goes.  Another exercise in getting better; another chance to prove that I’m not a slovenly, lazy, loser.

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  1. Lisa

    I think you’re on the right track– maintaining a streak and setting benchmarks are good, tangible things to point to in making progress. Don’t be hard on yourself, though– I’ve been meaning to work on studying languages, and I have no discipline in doing it unless I’m in class– and I’m actually good at learning languages. You have the motivation, so I think you can do it.

    1. seanv2

      I struggle with the discipline as well, but I hope this plan will help with that. I’m not sure how far I am going to get with individual study, but I’d like to walk into a class already being about to read, if not comprehend, the language.

  2. smt

    Oh my, I could write…a dissertation on the difference between running accomplishments/discipline and academic/intellectual discipline. The former is much much easier than the latter, especially for smart people I think. For example, you write that for various reasons, you will have to work twice as hard as everyone else to learn Hebrew. But I bet that you would never be like, “well, I’m not built like Meb, so I guess I’m going to have to work twice as hard on this running thing.” (You just kind of realize from the get-go that you aren’t going to be a world class marathoner. Which is not to say that I’m recommending setting your sights on being the world’s worst Hebrew student, just that there are SO many more factors than just “good with languages”/”bad with languages” that go into language learning.)

    Point being, with running, I find it MUCH easier to set your expectations correctly than with intellectual pursuits. Plus, it is much easier to understand exactly how things add up and progress is made in running: if you understand the difference between running 4 and 8 miles, it’s not that difficult to imagine the difference between 8 and 16, and running is pretty much the same thing every time you do it. Language learning…I mean, when was the last time that you learned a language? How do you know how to assess your progress? How do you know how much longer you’ll have to work at it?

    I don’t mean to dissuade you at all, just to point out some differences, from someone who deals with running, language, and “other intellectual work” discipline issues on a daily basis. And yes, beating one’s self up never gets one anywhere. Another interesting difference is that I find that for me personally, humility is much much much more important in intellectual work than in running.

    Amazingly, the French have a perfect phrase to close with: Bon courage! (i.e. U CAN DO IT!)

    1. seanv2

      This is a great, great comment. You’re right, I’d never think of comparing my progress to that of Meb’s and yet I do compare myself to people who are gifted at languages. As you know, SMT, I’m not so good at setting realistic boundaries for myself, but with Hebrew, I think the goal of basic reading comprehension isn’t aiming too high. I don’t need to learn to write, just read. It isn’t like I am going to be writing a commentary on the Talmud!

      1. smt

        This comment is of course really just me giving myself a pep talk about these kinds of things! (replace “language” with “dissertation” and you’ve got my current struggle…and the perfectionism is really really a problem!) Good luck to us both!

      2. seanv2

        Ha! Well I’m not worried about perfect in Hebrew, just good enough to be able to read the torah in the original. Is that too much to ask?

        Good luck with the dissertation, you’re the Paula Radcliffe of dissertations!

  3. chasingthekenyans

    this is cool. i always say i want to learn a language but have yet to get around to it. i don’t count the 1 french class in middle school, the 2 spanish classes in high school or the 2 italian classes in college because i don’t remember enough, ha. good luck!

    1. seanv2

      Thanks Lindsay, this will be cool if I can actually get somewhere!

  4. Hebrew English Dictionary

    Hello Sean,

    You and I seem to be doing exactly the opposite. I am doing well at my Hebrew courses in the university, while I suck big time at the gym lately. (lately is just the past two weeks, but I have done a good job for the past 2 years there at the gym, and I am very glad).

    I do not know if you realize the connection between your athletic efforts, the banner at the top of your blog, and your desire of learning Hebrew. (doesn’t ring a bell? the Maccabees/Channukah story).

    I do not know the reason why you want to learn Hebrew, thus I do not know whether you are after the ancient or modern Hebrew. However, let me assume you want to learn modern Hebrew, I am not the right guy to give you tips about learning ancient Hebrew. I am going to meet it for the first time next semester (I study Hebrew Literature and Jewish History at Cairo University).

    Unfortunately, our useless educational systems around the globe have to a great point killed all our interest in foreign languages, and turned a language learning experience from a fun and cultural experience to a boring can’t-wait-to-finish task. No wonder why we got to the conclusion that it is “impossible” to learn a language as an adult. Thanks to departments of education all over the world!

    If I were you…

    I would first learn how to speak some Hebrew before even touching a pencil and try to draw aleph beth. The reason why it has been “proven” that this is the best way is over my head, but I guess the reason why this is best is because it gives you confidence that what you are going to do is actually feasible, having like 500 words or something under your belt, being able to ask basic questions and introduce yourself and others, then learning how to read and write should fall right in place. IF I can afford it, I would certainly purchase Pimsleur Hebrew, you will notice that I talk about it a lot on my small blog, actually much more than a lot.


    I owe Pimsleur so much, it has helped me go to university without taking private courses first (had all my colleagues had to take)

    After learning how to speak some basic Hebrew, I would go ahead and download the FSI basic Hebrew book and the first few tapes and start studying right away:


    (the site has many other languages, if you have some friends who are struggling to learn another language different than Hebrew)

    Finding a Hebrew language partner would certainly boost your process, best way is to get one (or a couple) from LiveMocha.com

    By the way, I am planning to make a few Hebrew worksheets, but I honestly advise you to get Pimsleur or any other method of that kind before starting with them. However, you might check them out here. They will be constantly updated. P.S. This weekend I am working on Hebrew worksheets for personal pronouns. Stay tuned if you like here:


    Oops, that was such a long comment. I hope it gave you an idea of where to start with your Hebrew journey. Please keep it up and never give in. EVERYTHING is possible, long as you work on it.

    Cheers and stay fit!


    1. seanv2


      Thank you for this thoughtful and informative comment. I’ll definitely be checking out Pimsleur and following your blog, both of which seem like they will be helpful. I want to follow up on a couple of the points you made in your comment.

      First, I am interested in learning biblical Hebrew, not modern Hebrew. The reason is that despite my very Irish name, I converted to Judaism a couple of years ago and my wife and I intend to raise a Jewish family. I’d like to be able to help my theoretical children study for their theoretical bar or bat mitzvahs and not just sit around looking like an idiot.

      Secondly, though I’m not an academic, I am a bit of an amateur historian and I am very interested in classical and Jewish history. You mention the connection between the banner, my interest in sports, and the Maccabean revolt. I think you’re referencing here the building of the gymnasium in Jerusalem? If so, you have hit on something I am very interested in – the difference in thinking about the body, and exercise, between Jewish culture and Greek and Roman culture. I hope to write more about this in future posts.

      Finally, I see you are studying at Cairo University. I lived in Cairo for a summer during law school and still have many friends there!

      Thanks again for the comment, I hope you’ll check back in.

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