5 Mistakes Israelis Make When Speaking English

4 min read
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher

Learning Hebrew if you’re an English speaker is not a walk in the park, but the other way around is also true – for Israelis. If you’ve spoken English with an Israeli (which we often insist on doing, especially in Israel), you might have come across some weirdly phrased questions or sentences. The reason for this phenomenon is that these sentences are translated directly from Hebrew, and naturally, some things are lost in translation. We’re here to shed some light on five common mistakes Israelis make, that will help you both understand what Israelis want from you when they stare blankly at your face waiting for your reply, AND speak better Hebrew – because you will understand the grammar behind it.

1. “To open the door?”

When Israelis ask you this question, what they actually mean to ask is: “shall I open the door?” לפתוח את הדלת (leef-toh-ahch eht hah-deh-leht). The reason this question is so oddly phrased is that in Hebrew starting a sentence with an infinitive verb is the common way to ask “shall I…?” do something. So if you’re at the office, your colleague may ask you “to make coffee?” Instead of “shall I make you coffee”, and “to send it now?” instead of “shall I send it now”. As you can tell from this example, Hebrew (and by extension, Israelis) is a very direct and informal language. We want to use as few words as possible and get to the point as quickly as possible, and it’s not considered rude. You can use this way of phrasing in the office or amongst family and friends.

2. “Let’s move!”

Let’s say you’re sitting in a club in Tel Aviv with friends, and you’ve just finished paying the bill. Your Israeli friend may say: “Yalla, let’s move”, but they don’t mean ״let’s get back to the dance floor and move our bodies״ but rather “let’s get going”. This is because this phrase is a literal translation of בואו נזוז (boh-oo nah-zooz)which means let’s get out of here. The structure “Let’s __” is an interesting one in Hebrew, because it has two parts:

Come! (m.s.\f.s.\pl.) בוא\בואי\בואו (boh\boh-ee\boh-oo) + future verb (we)

It’s as if saying “come, and together we will do this action”:

  • Let’s (m.s.) talk בוא נדבר (boh neh-dah-behr) 
  • Let’s (f.s.) think בואי נחשוב (boh-ee nach-shohv)

Let’s (pl.) eat בואו נאכל (boh-oo noh-chahl)

3. “To sit or to take?”

If you’ve ever ordered a coffee in Tel Aviv you may have been asked if you want your mocha latte “to sit or to take?” which is a literal translation of לשבת או לקחת (lah-sheh-veht oh lah-kah-chaht), meaning “for here or to-go”. It’s worth noting at this point that because there is only one form of present tense in Hebrew – unlike English that has present simple, present perfect and present progressive – we tend to use a lot of infinitives when speaking English. For the average middle school student in Israel it’s challenging to differentiate between the different forms of present tense in English, because it’s simply unnatural to us. Hence our frequent confusion between “have” and “has”, and placing “ing” after many verbs when it’s unnecessary.

4. “I didn’t went to work”

In Hebrew there are only three real tenses: past, present and future. The future tense form is also used for commands (except for a few verbs that have a shorter structure that is more commonly used). Therefore when a sentence in Hebrew describes something that happened in the past, the verb will always appear in past tense. 

This leads to the mistake above: “I didn’t went to work”, instead of “I didn’t go to work” לא הלכתי לעבודה (loh hah-lahch-tee lah-ah-voh-dah). Hebrew is not the easiest language to master, but you can take comfort in the fact that there are no progressive or perfect past forms: if it happened in the past (near or distant) we use the same past tense form.  

5. “Hey, I want to make an invitation”

As mentioned before, Hebrew is a very economical language, meaning it uses less to describe more. There are plenty of verbs in Hebrew that have double or triple meanings, one of the more popular examples being the verb להזמין (leh-haz-meen). This verb has THREE different meanings: to invite, to order and to reserve. The noun הזמנה (hahz-mah-nah) that derives from this verb can mean either “order”, “invitation” or “reservation” – according to its context. So instead of making a reservation Israelis may attempt to “make an invitation”, or to “order a table” at a restaurant instead of reserving it ?. Here are some more examples:

to discover, to reveal, to find out – (leh-gah-loht) לגלות

to succeed, to manage to do something difficult – (leh-hats-lee-ahch) להצליח

to turn on, to switch on, to light (a candle, cigarette) – (leh-hahd-leek) להדליק

That’s it for now! Hope these examples helped you understand Hebrew grammar a bit better, or at least made you more forgiving towards Israelis ?. Tune in for some more bits and tips that will add to your learning experience with us.

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