On Language Study

Part of what many new seminarians dread is learning Hebrew and Greek. Many of them are more nervous about Hebrew, which I find fairly ironic, but I digress. Mandy and I learned Hebrew during our undergraduate education at Davis. I also learned Greek; to my shame I did not learn it well enough to do much with it, or to test out of Greek I and II at GCTS. Of course, this will probably turn out to be a good thing since I will know it much better now that I’m retaking the basic courses. At any rate, Mandy and I were just talking about language study. Even now that I’m understanding Greek and not having trouble comprehending even the basic noun system, I still don’t have the same love for Greek that I do for Hebrew. As I’ve thought about this, I realized that if I had taken Hebrew here at GCTS I would not have the same love for Hebrew that I have.

I owe my love for Hebrew to Dr. Snyder. He made the language come alive in amazing ways. To try to flesh this out, here’s an example of what I mean: in Hebrew, we do not listen to a voice (or sound), but we listen in a voice. Okay, so it’s a little preposition – no big deal. After all, prepositions only have about one hundred different definitions. Nevertheless, Dr. Snyder had us translate the phrase from Hebrew to English as “listen in a voice.” We knew, and he knew, that better, smoother, more understandable English would have been “listen to a voice,” but he wanted us to know Hebrew, to understand how it works. Because of this Mandy and I know all these little phrases and idioms in Hebrew, that we have been required – in the past – to keep in Hebrew. As such the language has a life of its own, a people of its own, a personality of its own. Because of this we see much more of the beauty of the language than if we had just translated it as “listen to a voice.”

Contrast this with how we’re learning at GCTS. Here we’re supposed to give good English. That’s fine. Obviously the English that we translate into needs to be readable and understandable. I don’t even have a problem with smoothing it out. But by doing this, from the very beginning, the students here don’t get the same feel for the language that Mandy and I have. They don’t have its little idiosyncrasies pointed out at every turn. For instance, in Greek we’re supposed to translate into good, smooth English rather than retain the word order of the Greek. That’s fine, and I can still point out any interesting things in the text when I’m teaching. But I don’t get to know the language as a friend, with its particular way of doing things. I will know the language, and I will know about the idioms and little differences between the languages, but I won’t know the idioms.

Another way of saying it might be like this: Dr. Snyder taught us to read Hebrew, at GCTS we are being taught to translate Hebrew and Greek. I guess one could call this a plea to those who teach the languages – teach students to read the language, not only translate it. Forget smooth English for a bit and instead make them work with the language on its terms. Your students will end up having a much greater love for the languages.

On the flip side, those of you who are learning languages – try to get into the language. Learn to know the language, not just know about the language. You’ll have a much greater love for the language. I don’t know if there is any exegetical insight in listening “in a voice” instead of “to a voice,” (and I doubt that there really is). But if you love the language more you’ll be more likely to spend the time keeping up on it and using it in the “real world.”

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2 thoughts on “On Language Study

  1. Good to find another biblioblogger in the area! If you happen to be in the Danver’s Home Depot (behind the Liberty Tree Mall), look me up. I will be there for the next week. After that I am heading to Iowa to teach at a Lutheran College for a semester.

    We should get together for coffee sometime.

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