Lesson #272: Common Issues for Hebrew Speakers studying English (Part 1)

If you have been following our Lessons since the start of November, you will have noticed that we are taking a look at some common mistakes made by students from different language backgrounds.

I always mention that these Lessons are not a criticism of your mistakes! I hope instead to offer some helpful points on how to recognise correct common pitfalls in learning English. 🙂

And what is more, I aim to offer every reader something to think about in each Lesson, whether or not the language background mentioned is your mother tongue or not.

Having studied ancient Hebrew at university many years ago, I decided to compile (gather) a list of challenges and errors that many native speakers of Hebrew have when learning English. 🇮🇱

✏️ One of the most difficult things for a Hebrew speaker in this process is having to change their way of thinking away from morphology (typical in Hebrew) to a focus on semantics (more characteristic of the English language).

What is the difference between morphology and semantics, you might ask?

✍️ Morphology is defined as the study of ‘how words are formed and their relationship to other words in the same language’. It breaks down the structure of words and analyses their stems, prefixes, suffixes, and any root words. Hebrew is a perfect example of this:

לכתוב                     This means ‘to write’

כְּתִיבָה                     This means ‘writing’

עבודות כתובות          This means ‘written works’

Notice how three root characters are found in these related words (כתב).

✍️ Semantics has to do with the study of word meanings. It is concerned with how words structure their meaning and the relationship between distinct sense and uses of any particular word.

💡 English tends to depend more on semantics than on morphology to make sense of words, while Hebrew relies more on morphology than semantics to do the same. As such, Hebrew students learning English have the challenge of memorising lots of words and trying to understand them as individual units, rather than relying on root structures to make sense of a group of related words as they would in Hebrew.

Some of the points highlighted below should help to clarify challenging issues, but as always if you have a further question on any of these, feel free to send it to me via my contact form. 🙂

ANTHONY TROLLOPE’S NINA BALATKA (1867)

With our linguistic introduction out of the way, let us have a look at today’s literary work: Anthony Trollope’s novella, Nina Balatka.

📜 It is a story about Nina Balatka, a soft-hearted yet stubborn young Czech woman who has fallen in love with a Jew in 19th-century Prague. It is also a story about inter-faith marriage (specifically between a Christian and a Jew) and all the struggle and stress, all the courage and conviction, that many people must have had if they wanted to marry someone from another religion, especially at that time.

This was the first work by Anthony Trollope that I ever read. I really loved its terse (short, condensed) and plot-driven narrative, being the kind of book that you don’t want to stop reading because every chapter leaves you anxious to find out what will follow!

✨ If you have never yet read a work of English literature and are wondering where to start, this little book might be just perfect for you! Its language is fairly simple and easy to understand for the most part, and the story’s plot is interesting enough to keep you engaged till the end.

Anthony Trollope was a master at describing the thoughts and feelings of very different characters all in a single story. This means that while Nina Balatka is the main character, it never is just about her: we hear of her old and sickly father, her imperious (liking to rule; proud and showy) aunt, her handsome but hesitant cousin, her kind and self-controlled fiancé Anton Trendellsohn, and her beautiful rival Rebecca who surprises us all with her kind action at the novel’s end. Indeed, there are too many characters in total to describe in depth here, so you must take my word for it that it is worth reading! 📘

✍️ Here are some links to a Librivox recording on YouTube which I really enjoyed and the book’s complete text online (also free) on Gutenberg.org .

Happy reading! I am sure we will return to Nina Balatka in many future Lessons – it is too rich and interesting to save it only for a single Lesson!

10 COMMON MISTAKES AMONG HEBREW SPEAKERS LEARNING ENGLISH

We will look at these points individually, turning to Anthony Trollope’s novel to illustrate and explain everything as we go.

📝 #1 ‘TO BE’

The present tense in Hebrew doesn’t use the copula to be. Thus, many Hebrew speakers make the mistake of using constructions such as ‘You beautiful today’.

✍️ ‘To be’ in English doesn’t just refer to something existing; it is also a very common verb that is used to join a subject with its description, attitude, or state.

Look at how Anton Trendellsohn uses it to describe Nina in the novel:

📘 “I believe you. You are brave, Nina. I know that. Though you will cry if one but frowns at you, yet you are brave.”

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphasis mine)

📘 “You are my treasure. I want you to remember that, and to believe it,” said the Jew.

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphasis mine)

📝 #2 NOUNS IN ENGLISH DON’T HAVE GRAMMATICAL GENDER

This is a very common issue for many students learning English, regardless of their mother tongue! It seems English is one of the few European languages where nouns don’t have any grammatical gender.

So in English a ‘book’ is an ‘it’ and not a ‘he/him’. And a ‘car’ is an ‘it’ but not a ‘she/her’.

I wrote more on this issue in 👉 Lesson #267 (point #4) which you can check out here.

📝 #3 VERB AND SUBJECT ORDER IN SENTENCES

Hebrew sentences often start with the verb, which is then followed by the subject.

✍️ In English, most sentences usually start with the subject:

📘 ‘Nina had shown that she could bear poverty. Nina’s torn boots and threadbare dress, and the utter absence of any request ever made with regard to her own comfort, had not been lost upon him. He knew how noble she was in bearing — how doubly noble she was in never asking.’

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphases mine)

📘 ‘He had thought much of his position as a Jew before he had spoken of love to the penniless Christian maiden who frequented his father’s house …’

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphasis mine)

📘 ‘She was nervously anxious to rush at once at her difficulties, and to be known to all who belonged to her as the girl who had given herself to the Jew.’

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphasis mine)

👉 Notice how the main verb in each one of the sentences above follows the subject, which always comes first.

📝 #4 ‘INVITE’, ‘RESERVE’, ‘ORDER’ – להזמין

📘 ‘Madame Zamenoy herself … had gone so far as to invite him to hear a few words on the subject from a priest on that side of the water.’

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka

We have three different words in English – ‘invite’, ‘reserve’, and ‘order’ – which in Hebrew can be translated with one word – להזמין

Because of this, it is natural for Hebrew-speakers to choose only one English word to cover the three different words we actually use. Let me define each one of these separately, so that you can see how to use them in their correct contexts.

✍️ We use ‘invite’ to describe the act of asking someone to join you at an event, a place, etc. For example, ‘She invited me to her wedding’, ‘I am inviting you to my birthday party’, etc.

✍️ We use ‘reserve’ when are going somewhere particular and want to secure a place or thing for ourselves there. So we talk about ‘reserving a table at a restaurant’, or ‘reserving tickets for the concert’, or ‘reserving a seat for a friend’, or even ‘I am reserving a book in the library that I really want to read’. In short, when we ‘reserve’ something, we book it in the hope of saving it for ourselves for a short time and specific purpose.

✍️ We use ‘order’ when we are asking for something specific in a restaurant or while shopping online. For example, ‘I ordered a coffee-maker on Amazon’ means that I bought it online and fully expect to receive it. ‘We will order fresh fish at the restaurant’ has the same intention; ‘an order’ is the noun that describes this action.

📝 #5 MUST vs CAN – WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?

The best way to approach this is to clearly define ‘must’ and ‘can’ separately before drawing comparisons.

✍️ ‘Must’ carries a sense of either necessity or obligation. Another way to describe ‘must’ is ‘have/had to’ – there is no other option or choice in the matter.

📘 ‘Ruth, you must not tell him what I say — not now, at least — for a reason.”

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphasis mine)

This quotation comes from a scene in the book in which Nina is begging her young friend Ruth not to share a secret with her lover. Notice how Ruth could (in the sense of being able to) share the secret but is told that she must not tell it because of her honour and friendship.

I have a full Lesson on ‘must’ as a modal verb form prepared for you 👉 here if you want to review this further.

✍️ On the other hand, ‘can’ refers to something you are ‘able to do. It is concerned with ability (whereas ‘must’ is focused on need).

‘Can’ therefore has six possible meanings. It can refer to:

  • ☑️ The ability to do something
  • ☑️ Possibility
  • ☑️ Permission
  • ☑️ Suggestions
  • ☑️ Offers
  • ☑️ Requests

In this next quotation, Nina tells Anton that he can open a desk she has locked with a key. In other words, he has her permission to do it:

📘 “There is the key, and you can do as you please.”

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphasis mine)

..

Here ‘can’ loosely carries the sense of a suggestion:

📘 “Can you ever be happy if you have been the cause of ruin to your husband?”

– Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphasis mine)

..

And here in this next line it carries the meaning of ‘being able to’:

📘 “You see I can trust you enough for candour.”

Anthony Trollope, Nina Balatka (emphasis mine)

..

👉 I have also written a Lesson on ‘can’ as another important modal verb form here for your reference.

I will continue with a few more points in Part 2 of this Lesson – please join me there! ✏️