Sunday, June 6, 2021

Native disturbance – first language interference and Hebrew/English errors


[Two adjacent clocks with different times*]

As anybody that has lived a foreign language or spent significant time with foreigners can attest, the native language creates challenges in fully mastering a foreign language. These interference errors often seem to be more resolute than the ability and desire to stop making them.  In many cases, non-native speakers never succeed in removing these inappropriate borrowings. Having lived in Israel for 32 years (immigrating on this date in 1989) and taught English to Israelis for the same period, I have experienced and observed certain error patterns in my Hebrew and the English of my students. These errors include sounds, gender issues and syntax constructions. Some of them are less critical than others but definitely mark the origin of the speaker.

[Sound space network]

The sounds of the different language family groups vary, making it difficult for learners, especially adult ones, to pronounce or distinguish certain letters. For Americans and Brits in Israel, the most common confusion is between alef א and ayin ע, which are pronounced [a] and [aa], respectively. Fortunately, most native Hebrew speakers tend to blur the difference, taking foreigners off the hook. On a more serious note are the Hebrew letters hay ה, het ח and chof כ,ף, with the first a soft h sound and the other two a guttural ch. The correct pronunciation distinguishes lah לה, meaning to her, from lach לך, to you. By contrast, Israelis struggle with distinguishing short and long vowels. For example, Israeli pronunciation of the word feet and sheet often more closely resembles fit and shit, which are neither homonyms nor synonyms. It is possible to train the mouth to properly pronounce these sounds but this improvement takes sustained effort.


Hebrew, being a Semitic language, makes gender/number agreement an essential aspect of its structure while English is limited to natural gender. This requirement for grammatical agreement leads to repeated errors by English speaking expats living in Israel. They sometimes simply forget to pay attention to the gender of the noun and randomly use the masculine or feminine form of the adjective and sometimes the verb, frequently immediately correcting it at the end of the sentence. The effect of such errors is a lack of aesthetics but fundamentally does not prevent understanding. More embarrassingly, the Hebrew word for you is different for men and women, whether in the singular in plural form, specifically אתה [ata] and אתם [atem] for men and את [at] and אתן [aten] for women. English speakers don’t always remember to think before speaking and use the wrong form. Sharing a house with women, I tend to use at even when I should use ata and end up sounding rather stupid. The 2nd person command form also has masculine and feminine forms, with the same result.  Native Hebrew speakers have an equally difficult time removing gender. They tend to forget that he and she only refer to a biological gender with everything else being it. As a result, a company becomes a she because it is a feminine noun in Hebrew while a house is a he. Certain nouns in Hebrew are plural, such as sky and water, are occasionally referred to as they by Hebrew speakers. It turns out that gender differences are also confusing in languages.

[parts of speech]

Every language has its own syntax but the difference between languages from different families can be rather significant. In Hebrew, prepositions, (e.g., on and in) are letters attached to words, with each word retaining its own preposition.  To demonstrate, in English, you can say, “I got tired of the noise and cars of the city” with the preposition of implicitly linked to the word cars. In Hebrew, you would have to add the preposition of (meh מ) to both nouns. Curiously, many otherwise knowledgeable expats are unaware of this fact. On a more practical level, when Brits literally translate their English construction of “It’s hot today”, זה חם היום [ze cham hayom], it is incorrect as Hebrew eschews the it is construction with the correct form being “hot today” חם היום [cham hayom]. By contrast, Israelis tend to err when using the connecting term for example in writing. While in formal Hebrew, it is correct to add a colon after the term and then write the examples, in English the rules of composition require a full sentence after it (as compared to the expressions such as and including). Temporal clauses are also traps for Israel as they tend to apply the Hebrew logic of putting the verb in the future. The result is “When I will arrive, I will call you,”, which no native English speaker would ever say.  Likewise, after modals, Israelis sometimes use the infinitive instead of the base form, e.g. The car can to break down anytime’ because Hebrew modals are followed by the infinitive. Thus, native language syntax does invade learned languages.

Clearly, the vast majority of language learners never reach completely native level of a foreign language partly because of first language interference. Some transference will always occur. However, most of these mistakes actually do not affect comprehension. Furthermore, native speakers are generally willing to forgive foreigners for these errors and focus on the positive. As in dealing with any type of disturbance, it helps to have a sense of humor regardless of your role, speaker or listener.

* Add picture capitons to help the blind access the Internet. Pictures via Pixabay.


  1. Excellent. I have found that temporals are the most difficult for Israelis to grasp, always using the future as per the Hebrew structure.

    1. Thank you. I sometimes succeed in "teaching" it away but only sometimes.