Some Observations Regarding Biblical Languages

It’s hard to believe but there are only a few weeks left in the semester. There is no Aramaic next Monday, and the following week will be our last meeting before the final. In Greek we have, I think, less than five chapters left. We are moving rapidly through the non-indicative moods (we’ve covered participles, subjunctives, infinitives, and on Friday we’ll cover imperatives). I’m still really enjoying Greek. Taking Intermediate Greek during the Summer I module should be a blast.

As for Aramaic, the second half of the semester has been much better than the first half. As of today we have translated every word of Biblical Aramaic. Our final class will be spent translating and discussing a Targum of Genesis and Papyri #30 from Elephantine. The targum uses supralineal pointing whereas the papyri contains only the consonantal text. It’ll be a different experience, but one that I’m looking forward to. Not having to worry about paradigms has made learning the language so much more enjoyable.

A few observations I’ve made from learning languages this semester:
1. Every time I learn a new language it seems that it becomes a little easier. I have more points of connection to hang things on. Even when the languages are very different (say Greek and Aramaic), there are still certain similarities. Taking languages that are similar heightens this effect (Aramaic and Hebrew, for instance. My hunch is this will prove true when taking Ugaritic next semester).
2. It’s surprising how easily one is able to read a language when one knows the required vocabulary. I’ve always known this, but it strikes me as incredibly important. Biblical Aramaic is an extremely small corpus, and so knowing the vocab is actually quite easy. I’m amazed at how far 400 words can get you. My goal this summer is to review my Hebrew vocabulary and ensure that I have down to 50 occurrences completely memorized. I hope to do the same for Greek.
3. Languages are actually really fun to learn. I’m still partial to Hebrew, but even Aramaic and Greek and quite interesting. As much as some people are into archeology or mythology I’m finding that I’m into languages.
4. Learning other languages well increases one’s grasp of English tremendously. I’ve known this since I took Hebrew I in undergrad, but this semester I have been reminded of it again and again. Conversely, when you know English well it becomes much easier to see what is going on in other languages–or at least to be able to explain what is going on in other languages in terms relative to English. It’s all part of a web I see developing in my mind that now includes four languages (English, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic). Now, if only I could get to the point where I can think in something other than the first of those.

Teaching and Learning Biblical Languages

There is an interesting article up over at the SBL Forum this month. The article, by Rahel Halabe, covers a variety of issues surrounding teaching Biblical languages, namely Hebrew, to students in an academic setting. There are some really excellent points made, not least of which is the need to teach what is needed at the beginning level and not to go overboard with grammatical issues in an introductory course. The Hebrew program especially at GCTS could learn quite a bit from this approach. Halabe also brings up another important point: the need to begin working with “authentic texts” as soon as possible.

In regards to all this, I still propose the textbook used by my Hebrew professor in undergrad, as the current, best resource to accomplish these things. Biblical Hebrew, by Bonnie Pedrotti Kittel, et al. (note, the link is to the second edition, which I have only looked at briefly, the following comments are based on the first edition) is an Hebrew textbook that I honestly can’t say enough good things about. It isn’t perfect. But it succeeds admirably at leaving aside unneeded encumbrances to learning the language, and at immediately presenting the students with the Hebrew Bible, not sentences constructed by a professor/scholar.

To give an idea of what I mean, let me use an example from Lesson 1 of Kittel’s text:

The lesson introduces the Qal, wayyiqtol (which Bonnie calls the prefix form with vav conversive). Dagesh forte is briefly discussed, as well as the idea that one must “find the root.” It makes learning Hebrew fun. Immediately the student is presented with a phrase lifted directly from the Hebrew Bible. Terms such as stem, form, and PGN are defined, and then the lesson is pretty much over. By the end of lesson two, students have translated Exodus 6.2, the Pi’el stem has been introduced, various parsing issues have been clarified, and the assignment for the next lesson is to translate all, or portions, of Hosea 1.2, Exodus, 6.13, 32.21, and Judges 11.13. Lesson three is absolutely brilliant in its introduction of first yod verbs. Bonnie has chosen to introduce 1st yod verbs by using the root הלך, which is, of course, not a first yod verb–but it behaves as one (Bonnie wisely leaves aside discussions of morphology and explanations as to why הלך behaves as it does. These may be covered once students have the basics down). As a result students are never going to forget what הלך looks like.

I think the above is sufficient to make my point. This textbook does not seek to teach the language in a systematized manner (though there is a reason and logic behind the format of the book), but rather to engage students in reading verses lifted directly from the Hebrew Bible immediately, to help them read the language well, and to leave more in depth questions of grammar to further study. Bonnie Kittel’s textbook, coupled with a teacher who is able to teach the language well, and help it come alive for students, is an excellent answer to many of the discussions I’ve seen taking place over the past several months in regard to teaching Hebrew. Will one, eventually, need a more systematic understanding of Biblical Hebrew grammar? Certainly, but that can be had during a second year of study once one already has a grasp on the language and can read the majority of prose passages without undue amounts of stress. Perhaps someone will eventually come out with a superior text to Bonnie’s, there are things that I might do a little differently (and Randall Buth’s method intrigues me). Nevertheless, it remains the best textbook of which I am aware for helping students taste the language immediately and forever acquire a love of it. Without this love of the language, pastors will never use it, and even scholars will see it as only one of many tools to be used, rather than something to be enjoyed.

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.

Aramaic Panic

Ok, so I’m taking Aramaic this semester. I really enjoy learning languages. I enjoy studying the Bible. It’ll look good on my transcript when I go on for PhD work (the issue of a youth pastor having a PhD in Hebrew Bible is not one that I wish to get into at present…I’m the oldest child in my family, I’m used to blazing new trails). It also, if I manage an A or A+ in the course, opens the door to taking both Targumic Aramaic and Syriac as a directed study. So, those would both be awesome.

Now, on to the topic of this post. I am, in no small way, panicking. Let me explain what our first week of work included in this class:

  • 143 Vocabulary words (some are exact Hebrew cognates, so no big deal. Others aren’t hard if you sorta know the Bible (ie, bar for “son”…but even then there are probably around 90 words that don’t fall into that category)
  • 8 Paradigms (Personal pronouns, absolute and construct nouns, Peal strong verb perfect, imperfect, imperative, participle, passive participle and infinitive.
  • We were responsible to read ahead in the textbook (A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic by Alger Johns), and do the exercises for material we had not yet covered in class.
  • There were 50 of these exercises, which wasn’t a horrible number as they are fairly simple sentences.
  • Of those chapters in the textbook we were supposed to work through, there were 5.

This is, according to the syllabus, what I can expect for the first half of the semester. I’m not complaining, this is, after all, graduate school. I am panicking! We are making our way through the entire grammar in about five weeks. Which, my instinct is, wouldn’t be bad–if we were actually covering the lessons in class and then doing the exercises, etc. However, we are supposed to just read the chapter, understand enough to do the exercises, and then show up in class–which is spent going over the exercises and having the entire class ask questions that waste time because they’re overly simple but we don’t know them because we were never actually taught the material. Beyond that, if I have 8 paradigms to memorize every week, aside from being a horrible way to learn a language, it means that I am going to be responsible for at least 40 paradigms on the mid-term. Now, we won’t have to reproduce all 40. But since Dr. Stuart refuses to tell us which ones will be on the mid-term we will have to know all 40. Add to this trying to learn and retain ~100 vocab words a week, and I’m just freaking out. Do people actually learn languages like this?

Now that I’ve vented my frustrations and panicked ravings enough to get on with life I’m going to return to the insurmountable number of vocab words and paradigms I have to learn. Because I’m already behind.