Back in my high school days I was studying various languages such as Russian, Arabic, and Hebrew. However, one language stood out to me as being my favorite… Yiddish. I enjoyed every aspect of the language, from its chutzpah, to the way it looked on paper.
Given that Yiddish doesn’t have as many resources as say Japanese, or Spanish, it certainly does have good number of both paid and free resources if you know where to look. It’s also certainly a language you can get pretty proficient in if you follow the right steps.
So how should you go about learning Yiddish?
To learn Yiddish you’ll want to setup a study routine in which you listen to the language as much as possible, practice reading and writing, and look for opportunities to speak the language. If you have the budget, definitely sign up for a class whether in-person or online.
Select What Type of Yiddish You Want to Learn
Okay, so if you didn’t know already there are a few different types of Yiddish.
Before you give up entirely, hear me out.
There are three types of Yiddish that you ought to be aware of: YIVO (academic/standard), Hasidic, and Southeastern.
Most resources are in the YIVO dialect. This dialect is also known as “Standard Yiddish” and is what you’ll most likely be taught if you’re learning it in college or institution. It’s probably going to be easier to learn this dialect since it’s, for the most part, phonetic, and has the most modern resources.
The Hasidic dialect is what is actually spoken by most people today. If you live in New York City, you’ll probably come across this variant of Yiddish in places like Williamsburg. It’s not as phonetic as the standard variant, but there are quite a number of resources to learn this dialect if you do some digging.
The final one is Southeastern or Ukrainian Yiddish. While not really spoken by many today, it can be seen as the middle ground between Hasidic and Standard Yiddish. Many old films and stories were written and produced in the variant.
The differences between each dialect are not as drastic as the differences in Arabic dialects. The distinguishing feature of each dialect is more in pronunciation and spelling. However for the most part you can say they are the same, hence they are dialects and not entirely different languages. This article will center its focus on the YIVO dialect, but much of what we share can be applied to any dialect.
What Are Your Goals with Yiddish?
Alright so now that you have selected a type of Yiddish you want to learn you need to develop your why. Why are you learning this language? What are you hoping to achieve by studying Yiddish? You see, most of us are good starters, but rarely are we good finishers. And while there really isn’t any “finish line” for learning a language, there will definitely be a difference between someone who sets goals for him or herself vs. someone who doesn’t.
So ask yourself the following questions:
- Why do I want to learn Yiddish?
- Do I want to read books in Yiddish?
- Do I want to listen to old films and plays?
- Do I want to connect with family members who speak Yiddish?
- Do I want to connect with Jewish culture?
- Where do I want to be in 3 months with the language?
- Where do I want to be in 6 months with the language?
- Where do I want to be in 2 years with the language?
- How much time (minutes or hours) can I see myself committing to my studies?
- What are things that will make achieving my goals difficult?
Once you have an idea as to why you’re learning Yiddish, think of obstacles that will likely occur. If you’re in school, will homework and extra curricular activities get in your way? If you have kids, will they be a distraction? List all the things that will likely pose a challenge to your goals, and then for each obstacle, figure out a way to mitigate it.
It’s crucial to develop your why, especially with language learning because it’s no easy skill set to develop. It’s also no help that Yiddish is a lesser known language compared to French and Spanish. But this shouldn’t stop you! Simply become aware that there are difficulties out there, and like with any language; develop a plan (a realistic plan, not like studying 4 hours everyday till you die), keep practicing and track your progress.
What Are Common Difficulties with Learning Yiddish?
So we’ve talked about how there are difficulties when learning the language, and how a lack of obvious resources might make this challenging. But let’s list out all the common challenges beginners face when learning Yiddish.
#1 Lack of Resources
Why is this being listed again? Because it’s actually a challenge. You see, there’s no “Pimsleur Yiddish” or “Glossika Yiddish” at least not yet. So most of what you’ll find is limited. Even on YouTube, while there are a amazing lessons, the amount of good content is lacking even today. So finding the right resources is going to be a challenge. But don’t worry! We’ve found some resources which we’ll share at the end of the article to help you get started RIGHT AWAY!
#2 Lack of Native Speakers
Okay, so this is going to be an issue for people who want to proficiently speak Yiddish. According to YIVO.org, Yiddish is spoken by less than one million people today. Most of these speakers are Hasadim, or Haredim Jews. The Jewish communities that do speak Yiddish often separate themselves from the rest of the world, making conversing with natives quite difficult. However, as with the lack of resources, we’ll get to how you can get around this obstacle towards the end!
#3 A New Writing System
So you’re going to have to learn a new writing system if you want to learn Yiddish. Yiddish is based off the Hebrew writing system. While romanization is an option, I highly recommend against it simply because if you’re serious about learning a language, learning the native writing system forces you to immerse yourself in that culture making language learning more meaningful and enjoyable.
Also, unlike Hebrew, Standard Yiddish is primarily phonetic!
Getting Started With Yiddish
So now that we know the obstacles, and have set goals for ourselves, let’s begin our Yiddish learning adventure!
What Other Languages Are You Familiar With?
The first thing to do when you’re ready to learn is ask yourself “what languages do I know already?” If you’ve ever studied a second language, learning another might come more quickly to you. Languages like German, Dutch, Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, or any other Slavic language might help you learn Yiddish as well. Because Yiddish was influenced by these languages, primarily German, you might find a lot of similarities in vocabulary and grammar.
If this is the first language you’re studying, don’t worry! Follow this article and you’ll be on the right track.
Listen to The Language A LOT
When studying a new language, audio exposure is critical. You want to train your ear to pick up what the language sounds like. Personally, I recommend 10-15 minutes a day just listening to Yiddish for the first 3-5 days. If you want to listen to some music, here’s a Yiddish playlist on YouTube.
The Yiddish Book Center has done a great job at compiling stories narrated in Yiddish, and they’re available for FREE.
Learn the Hebrew / Yiddish Alphabet
The Yiddish alphabet is very similar to the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabet, with a few modifications of course. For instance, in Hebrew the vov (ו) can be pronounced v, u, or o, depending on where the vowel marks are. However, in Yiddish it’s almost always a (u) sound. To get the v sound you use the tsvey vovn (two vovs) וו. To get the o sound you use the komets alef (אָ)
Read our article on Yiddish vs Hebrew
It’s actually much easier to read Yiddish due to this modification since you don’t have to memorize as many words as you do with Modern Hebrew. To learn more about what I mean you can read our article on “is Hebrew a hard language to learn”
Letters like the langer fey (ף) come at the end of words. Langer (+shlos mem), is simply the final form of the letter when they appear at the end of the word. So שׁאָלעם is how you would say “hello” or “greetings” and is pronounced sholem. Notice how ם is used at the end instead of מ.
Setup a Practice Routine
Once you’ve become familiar with the sounds of Yiddish, you’re ready to develop a regular routine. By routine, I mean something you’ll do on a regular basis… a habit. Now I know we all have super busy lives, but when you really look at your life, are you ACTUALLY in a position where you can’t practice for 10-20 minutes a day? Is every second taken up by something important?
As mentioned earlier, most of us are great starters but as time goes on we tend to give up. “It’s too hard” “I forgot to practice today so there’s no point” or the classic “I kind of just stopped” are all things that quitters say. Now, if you’re serious about learning the language, you MUST build a habit of practicing each day.
Here are some ideas to get Yiddish into your daily lives
- Listen to Yiddish music while drinking your morning coffee, or eating breakfast
- In Yiddish, place 3 post-its a day on items throughout your house with their translation.
- Make it a goal to learn and remember 3 words a day. Read and write the word once in the morning, and recall them at night. For more intensive study aim for 5-10.
- Use Quizlet, or AnkiDroid for mobile flashcards. However, handwritten flashcards are a better way to study.
- Learn a song in Yiddish every week. Listen on weekends, practice between Muntik (Monday) and Fraytek (Friday), and recite on Fraytek (Friday) .
- Write a short journal entry in Yiddish everyday. It can be only two sentences, as long as you’re exercising your brain to recall words.
If You Can, Signup for a Course
When I was studying Yiddish I was in highschool I remember asking my father to sign me up for a Yiddish language course. As I learned, a course is going to really help you getting a more in-depth understanding of the language. Having someone who is highly skilled in any area, and learning from them is important to gain proficiency.
Here are a few courses you can take that are online
Interested in Self-Study?
If you’re looking to learn Yiddish on your own, we’ve compiled a list of the 6 best books to learn Yiddish. Each book has a review + an Amazon link for you to begin learning the language ASAP!
If you know someone’s birthday is coming up, consider reading our post on how to say happy birthday in Yiddish.
FREE Yiddish Learning Videos
Looking to Learn Hebrew?
If you’re looking to learn Hebrew, we’ve made an article on the best books to learn the language. Read the full article “7 Best Books to Learn Hebrew“