Sunday, November 1, 2020

On Learning Biblical Hebrew as a Living Language

After a week to catch our breath, term two of Briercrest College's modified fall semester begins tomorrow. For me and my students this means a full semester of Introductory Hebrew compressed into 6.5 weeks. Because I want to reserve class time for Hebrew learning, I made a short video to explain in advance why we are going to study a “dead” language like Hebrew as one would a living language:

I am reproducing the first part of what I say in the video, for those like me, who prefer reading to watching:

This course takes a “Living Language” approach to learning Biblical Hebrew. Among other things, this means the course will be conducted, as far as possible, in Biblical Hebrew. You are going to spend a lot of time in this class listening to Biblical Hebrew. You will be learning to speak Biblical Hebrew as well as to read and write Biblical Hebrew.

This is different from how Biblical Hebrew has traditionally been taught in North America. In a traditional language classroom you would spend most of your time in class listening to your teacher talk about Hebrew in English. Homework would consist of painfully trying to memorize English glosses for Hebrew words, and translating Hebrew sentences into English.

Now, the goal of any Introductory Biblical Hebrew course is to help students learn to read and understand an ancient text. The traditional approach takes for granted that the easiest, quickest way to learn to read Hebrew is to focus on grammar and translation. There are no native Biblical Hebrew speakers. You don't need to know how to buy food in the market or how to hire a taxi in Biblical Hebrew. Why bother making the extra effort to speak Hebrew? Why emphasize hearing when all you really need to do is read letters on a page? 

But if your goal is to internalize the language so that you can read with understanding, and if you want long-term retention—not just passing a test, but being able to continue to read 10 years down the road—the traditional approach turns out to be neither efficient nor particularly effective.

For one thing, I can say from experience that memorizing lists of vocabulary words is very time consuming ... and doesn't work very well. More importantly, the preoccupation with translation—as if Hebrew must be turned into English to be understood—actually gets in the way of internalizing the language.

For more detail, as well as a few comments about what motivates me to teach Hebrew, you will need to watch the video itself. It's only five minutes long. 

I have never taught Biblical Hebrew using a fully communicative approach before, and the pressure to prepare for daily classes will be intense. But I am grateful to be able to ply my trade in a context where face-to-face teaching is still an option, even if it means I need to learn how to say ‘put on your masks’* in Biblical Hebrew.

*I've settled on עֲטוּ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶם, which uses Leviticus 13:45 as a model. My thanks to Aaron Eby for the suggestion.