A student’s thoughts on learning Hebrew

There has been an bit of a discussion going on in the bibioblogosphere recently. Perhaps it might be better labeled a resurgence of a long-standing discussion, but that detail is somewhat superfluous. You can read the relevant posts by John Hobbins (and everywhere else on his blog), Mark Hoffman, David Ker (also here), and my own previous comments. As I’ve been turning all the arguments over in my head over the past couple days, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Hopefully this will help to continue the conversation.

I think part of this discussion is based on a difference of goals. John Hobbins and David Ker have both mentioned this briefly. Most of my classmates in seminary (specifically at Gordon-Conwell), want to learn the languages as a tool. At first glance, that might not seem like a bad idea, but in reality I think it carries with it many problems. For instance, at Gordon-Conwell Greek and Hebrew are seen as tools not only for ministry/scholarship after graduation, but for use in one’s required exegesis courses (for those not in the know, GCTS exegesis courses consist of translating about 10 chapters from the Hebrew or Greek, about one a week, some exams on relevant material covered in class lectures, and a paper where one is asked to interact with the Greek or Hebrew text and answer issues of grammar, syntax, etc, after having translated the pericope from the original). I took an exegesis class in the Samuel corpus, and learned quite a bit. However, I already had two full years of Hebrew under my belt, and I was taking Intermediate Hebrew Grammar at GCTS concurrently. Most of the students only had a year of Hebrew. What does all of this have to do with learning Hebrew? Only this:

Hebrew is seen, by seminary students, as a tool for passing an exegesis course. As a result, they are required to learn the grammar, syntax, etc, in order to be able to play commentator in an exegesis paper. Obviously the grammar of a language is important. However, in seminaries it is normally taught first, and actually knowing the language is left somewhat to one’s own devices. Reading and pronouncing the language is given a priority somewhere near the bottom of the list–if at all. What this means is that trying to teach a language inductively is often not an option, because of other class requirements.

I’m not saying this means it is a hopeless situation. Quite the opposite, I think that any layperson is quite capable of learning Hebrew and Greek (they are not that difficult), and reading the text in its original language. Certainly there will be difficulties at first, but as one becomes more familiar with the text, as one reads it in the original more and more often, it will become that much more natural.

Ultimately, I think we need to expect both more and less from students in language courses. I think the expectation needs to be on reading the text, not translating the text. The focus needs to be on grasping what the text is saying, not giving a technical explanation of the grammar. Students should learn the grammar and syntax of the language, but it should come later. Let them learn to be comfortable with the language first. I think, if we adopted a process like this there would be far more students who enjoyed the Biblical languages (and other dead languages!), and when they did learn the grammar, they would know it much better.

The problem with language classes as I have been exposed to them here at GCTS, and as David Ker has been exposed to them, is that they don’t actually help one to enjoy the language. They suck the joy out of it. I’m lucky enough to have had an incredible Hebrew prof in undergrad, Dr. George Snyder, who made learning the Hebrew fun. If not for him, I’m sure I would hate Hebrew, and never want to go any further with it than what my exegesis classes require. Perhaps ultimately what we need are good language teachers. Ones who realize that instilling a love of the language should come before explaining the finer points of grammar, syntax, morphology, et al.

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2 thoughts on “A student’s thoughts on learning Hebrew

  1. I agree with you 100%. And I think John would too. We need to concentrate on overcoming the initial foreignness of a language before we start labeling all the bits and parts with strange names like aorist, etc. While we have a consensus on how to do it, there aren’t a lot of materials out there for making these dead languages come alive. I’ve written a few songs in Greek. Others have too. Might be nice to collect these kind of resources together.

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