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Seumas Macdonald

It is *so* encouraging for me to hear someone say this about Hebrew. For quite some time now I've been convinced of the need for communication-based teaching of Latin and Greek, and striving to spend some spare time developing materials for it. Just this year I've convinced a group of theological students to come along to a 1hr/wk tutorial on 'Conversational Ancient Greek'. The hardest thing is, that as Saffire knows, teachers of classical languages are often at a loss to teach and sustain teaching via such a method.



you have the greatest mug shot under "About me" on your website. Keep up the fine blogging.

I should post on war and peace again to give you a chance to poke holes in my warmongering logic.

Seumas Macdonald

I've found your war-and-peace series very engaging. I'm looking forward to the rest of it.

K.W. Randolph

While in principle I am in agreement that we should teach these ancient languages as conversational languages, there are a few problems I see in doing that, particularly in relation to Biblical Hebrew:

1) vocabulary: in our modern days we have ideas that were not present in those days, e.g. cars, telephones, etc. In trying to make conversation, one quickly runs into a brick wall of not being able to talk about what is going on in our daily lives.

2) ignorance of the language: this is something that scholars don’t want to admit to (I certainly don’t), but if they are honest, the admission must be made.

2a) pronunciation: we are not sure even how Biblical Hebrew was pronounced. We have a tradition as it was preserved by the Masoretic points, but is that accurate according to how the language was pronounced in Biblical days? Different transliterations raise questions. It doesn’t help that sometimes the points are clearly wrong, as recognized by context and meaning.

2b) definitions: what do the words mean? There are two schools of thought known to me, defining by semantic domain, and the second by activity. For the most part, both methods yield the same or similar enough meanings, but there is some divergence. In particular, the latter method recognizes far fewer synonyms than does the former, only a fraction thereof.

By way of disclaimer, for my own use, I have written a dictionary using the latter method from Biblical Hebrew to English.

2c) figures of speech: while a few are recognizable, such as the use of the verb “to be lost” as a euphemism for “to die”, how many do we miss, and thereby misunderstand the verses in question?

2d) grammar: do I need to say more when people still disagree whether the perfective is a tense or an aspect?

The way I learned Biblical Hebrew was by reading the text over and over again, several times, from cover to cover. I prefer to read an unpointed text. So while conversation learning will be difficult, I would emphasize reading and even memorizing texts, and the language will eventually become internalized.

Brian Schultz

Teaching Biblical Hebrew as a living language - meaning that it is taught entirely in Biblical Hebrew (or 90-95% of the classtime), has been done for a few years already at the summer programs of the Biblical Language Center ( This past summer, for the first time, there was also a Koine Greek class taught in Koine Greek (again, during 90-95% of the class time). With a couple years of Greek at the undergrad level from over a decade ago, I sat in the first three weeks, did little to no homework, and yet it revitalized my Greek. I have a LONG way to go still, but at least now, reading the gospel of John (as I am now doing) is no longer a process of grammatical and lexical puzzle solving, but of one of fluent like reading. I wonder where I would be at had I done the homework and taken all six weeks of the course? For those of us who have experienced the "live language method" (like in your class with Mansoor) - or who are still experiencing it, it is a no-brainer which works best.


K. W. and Brian,

I appreciate your comments very much, though in part they go in opposite directions. I'm very sensitive to the fact that the way we pronounce Hebrew differs in demonstrable ways from the way it was most likely pronounced in biblical times. But it's a great help to have an intensely oral relationship with the language, and I encourage everyone who loves biblical Hebrew to take the time to learn as much rabbinic and modern Hebrew as possible.


I am a colleague of Brian Schultz (above) at the BLC and am currently co-teaching a six-week-long, beginning-level, intensive Biblical Hebrew course in Niamey, Niger, using the live method described above. All of the students are involved in Bible translation, as is my co-teacher (we both have proficiency in Modern Hebrew from studies in Israel [I am currently pursuing a PhD in Hebrew language at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem]).

The class meets 4 hours a day, 5 days a week. We aim to spend 90-95% of class time in Hebrew. We try to make the class as much a language class (not a Bible class) as possible. I have also taught this type of course on a semester-type schedule and found it much less effective. On the one hand, it is true, students have more time to do their homework (for the first 4-5 classes, this involves listening to recordings of words and phrases that accompany a set of 1000 drawings; during that time and immediately after students also learn the alphabet and the sounds of the vowel points; from then on, the HW focuses on Jonah, with students memorizing dialogues, doing substitution drills based on the dialogues, reading grammatical descriptions/explanations, and reading the book of Jonah a few verses at a time). On the other hand, because this is a language class, as with any language class, twice a week for an hour and a half each class is NOT a good schedule for language learning. Language learners tend to need immersion (or as close as we can get to it) for effective internalization to take place. An intensive course (while tiring for teachers and students alike) is thus, in my experience, more condusive to langauge learning (another problem with the semester-type schedule is that students typically do other classes and have other assignments, while during an intensive course they're much more likely to dedicate themselves solely to Hebrew for the six weeks).

On the challenges, difficulties, and doubts raised above. We follow a Sephardic-style pronunciation of the MT. Aiyn and Het are different from Alef and Kaf rafa, but there are only 5 vowels. This is certainly not the pronunciation of Moses or David or even the Massoretes, but neither is it merely modified modern Hebrew. The Sefardic tradition long ago allowed Qamats and PataH to merge into [a], etc. So there's a well-established tradition here. Of course, there are always areas (hard words, hapax legomena, difficult syntax, textual corruptions) where we end up teaching an interpretation that results from speculation. But we admit that at the outset. And we do try to get things right (like avoiding modern/Mishnaic Hebraisms to the best of our ability). Do we end up uttering non-Biblical Hebrew sometimes? Yes, without a doubt. But if, because of the class, a student internalizes enough Hebrew to begin reading with some fluency (and not just deciphering), then I feel that we've done our job. And I will be very pleased indeed if, in the future, a student comes back to me and says "I remember you used to say X for Y, but I've read through the Tanakh and in my opinion that's not BH." I mean, it's not as if the non-communicative teaching style gets everything right either. In other words, the problems listed above are not faced exclusively by proponents of a communicative method, but by all teachers/students of BH, no matter the method they use.

Modern Hebrew is of great . . . nay, inestimable value for the purposes of a live BH class. That is not to say one simply comes in and speaks it, but that a large proportion of the morphology and a great deal of the vocabulary is shared (though there are differences in both of these areas, for example the feminine singular of strong hif'el participles). On phonology see above. Syntax, of course, is where we really have to work hard.

In class it's always a challenge to keep things live (we do, of course, read Jonah and go over the grammar questions that accompany the reading) and to come up with effective activities, games, songs, verses (we memorize the Shma' to hand movements verse by verse [this helps with weqatal forms]). If we have to explain a paradigm or a vowel change due to a gutteral, then we try to do it in Hebrew. This means that we have to explain it more than once, but it also means that the students hear lots and lots of Hebrew.

We try to avoid completely modern concepts by keeping our settings filled with props that did exist in ancient times. Also, a certain among of obvious anachronism can be humorous.

During week 1 of an intensive course, we generally don't want people to try to speak, because (1) many need to get accustomed to the new sounds and shouldn't try to make them until they are; and (2) people typically can't listen when they're speaking or feel that they're going to have to produce. Week 1 is thus mainly TPR. During weeks 2 and 3 we continue TPR and also start elliciting speech, but it's speech that we the teachers have to make obvious. That is, the student should not have to think hard to produce a phrase, but merely respond with a simple answer, for example החפץ אתה בכוס? "Do you want the cup?" to which he can respond חפץ "Want(= yes)." We generally find by weeks 3 and 4 that students are volunteering speech (though this depends on the student). And here we begin asking (in Hebrew): מה אני עושה? "What am I doing?" while performing actions that we TPRed frequently up to then. We move from the participle to the qatal and yiqtol forms, which students hear, along with wayyiqtol, from the end of week 1/beginning of week 2 in conjunction with TPR. We also try to intersperce well-known stories, either slightly or significantly simplified. Students act these out, with the 2 teachers asking each other and the students questions about what the actors are doing. Students then hear the story read (with the actors acting), they then here it without actors, they then hear it again with one of the teachers interupting to ask who? what? where? when? why? questions, which the teacher reading the story answers (in this way students hear the corresponding wayyiqtol and qatal forms). We then give out the story so students can read it while it is read aloud by a teacher. We typically don't assign it as mandatory HW, because students already have their Jonah HW (students with time and curiosity end up reading it anyway).

We had success with a recent activity, a new one that we came up with for the purpose of teaching the ב/כ+infinitive construct structure so common to BH narrative. I simply drew a stick-figure comic strip on the board about a man who was walking on a road when he arrived at a tree, which fell on him; while he was getting out from under the tree (ויהי בצאתו), a bad dog approached him, so he fled; while he was fleeing (ויהי בברחו), he fell into a pit; etc., etc. I then changed the man to a woman (added long hair) and did the story in the feminine. We then taught the part of the Shma' (Deut 6:7) that contains four of these forms in a row (not in narrative). This was lots of fun and at least felt effective.

We use Randall Buth's "Living Biblical Hebrew" Books A (picutres and alphabet) and B (Jonah), with accompanying CDs. The textbooks contain more linguistic explanation on BH than any beginning BH book I know of, so one should not think that, yes, the course sounds communicative, but perhaps it's not serious or scholarly. It is fun and effective, while at the same time serious and scholarly.
And we are always trying to improve it, add effective activities, etc., so if you have suggestions, feel free to share.



Aaron, thank you for giving us an idea of your teaching method. It sounds very promising indeed.

You make a great case for short-course full-immersion, intensive language learning.

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