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The Old Testament (in Christian tradition)—or the Hebrew Bible—was originally written in Biblical Hebrew, though a small percentage was also written in Biblical Aramaic. By learning the original languages of the Bible, one becomes equipped for deeper study. Whether the ultimate goal is translation, academic research, teaching, preaching, or personal understanding, learning the original languages of the Bible is well worthwhile.
Traditionally, Biblical Hebrew has been taught by memorizing vocabulary and learning rules of grammar. This knowledge was then applied to the reading of a text with the ultimate goal of translation. This method has come to be known as the “Grammar-Translation” (GT) approach. Most proponents of this method consider “reading” as the ultimate objective—hearing or speaking is not typically part of such an approach. In recent decades, however, there has been a growing trend in biblical language pedagogy to teach ancient languages more like modern ones. Rather than merely reading and translating Biblical Hebrew, one can actually learn to speak Biblical Hebrew productively, hear Biblical Hebrew with understanding, and write original compositions in Biblical Hebrew. This method, which is the one adopted by BiblicalHebrew.com, is known as the “Communicative-Language-Teaching” (CLT) approach. While many Second Language Acquisition (SLA) papers and articles support this point, one of the better known articles on the topic is Paul Nation’s “The Four Strands.”: Nation, Paul. 2007. “The Four Strands.” Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching 1: 2–13. In this article, Nation argues that the various activities that take place in a language class can be divided into four types: (i) meaning-focused input, (ii) meaning-focused output, (iii) language-focused learning, and (iv) fluency development. Ideally, one learning a language would be exposed to each of these four strands in equal measure. As part of this, “meaning-focused input” should involve both reading and listening, whereas “meaning-focused output” should involve both writing and speaking. “Language-focused learning,” on the other hand, involves intentional and specific focus on features of the language, such as pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and discourse. Finally, “fluency development” makes use of all the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. BiblicalHebrew.com attempts to provide a variety of learning resources to encourage fluency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. For more on this and related topics, search “pedagogy” in the BiblicalHebrew.com blog, where you will likely find a growing selection of articles on the topic.
There are a number of reasons why we should learn Biblical Hebrew as a living language... For one, most ancient people who encountered the Hebrew Bible, encountered it aurally (i.e., by hearing it) rather than visually (i.e., by reading it). By internalizing the language so that we can process it in real time like a living language, we put ourselves closer the place of the ancients. Another benefit of learning Biblical Hebrew as a living language concerns the cultural transferability of the learning method. In a traditional GT approach (see above), a student not only has to learn Hebrew but all sorts of meta-language and grammatical language (in English) about Hebrew. Such a method is not easily transferable to non-English speakers. By learning Hebrew as a living language, on the other hand, the same resources (in large part) can be used by a variety of users, who speak different languages, around the world.
There are a variety of language-learning materials on BiblicalHebrew.com, the amount of which is continually growing. While some of the materials, such as the streaming language lessons (‘Lessons’), begin from scratch are appropriate for learners with no prior knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, other materials, such as the biblical cartoons (‘Shows’), require some background in Biblical Hebrew to be fully appreciated. As such, if you are a complete beginner, it is recommended to begin your journey in learning Biblical Hebrew by watching the streaming language lessons on the ‘Lessons’ page. If, on the other hand, you have some experience with Biblical Hebrew, you can further develop your fluency by watching some of the Biblical Hebrew cartoons. Moreover, for those who have extensive Biblical Hebrew knowledge but have never treated it as a living language, watching the Biblical Hebrew cartoons (with captions) is a great way to start developing aural listening fluency.
There are a number of different ways to answer this question. In order to answer this question best, we first have to define what we mean by “learn” Biblical Hebrew. On this point, we should remind ourselves that the Hebrew Bible is ancient Hebrew literature, written in a more elevated register than everyday speech. As such, it requires a more advanced knowledge of the language than a two-minute conversation on the streets of ancient Jerusalem would have. Within the Hebrew Bible itself, there are more straightforward narrative prose sections, like Genesis or 1 Samuel, and more sophisticated poetic sections like Isaiah, Psalms, and Job. Therefore, we must consider whether we are after competence in the simpler narrative portions of the Bible or in the language of the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, poetry and all. Another point to consider is the extent of the competence we wish to attain. Traditionally, many (or most) Biblical Hebrew language classrooms have contented themselves with a competence that allows learners to use dictionaries and reference grammars to help them translate a passage. In light of some of the preceding (see questions above) questions and answers, however, it is my belief that we should aim for a higher competence than this. We should aim to become fluent in Biblical Hebrew, able to read, write, hear, and speak the language. In fact, even if our ultimate goal is merely reading and translating the text of the Hebrew Bible, this is the best way to attain that goal. If we want to read and understand the text in real time, we should internalize the language and develop language fluency as much as possible.
With all this in mind, we might suggest the following timeframe for learning Biblical Hebrew: Fluency in biblical narrative: For developing solid and fluent competence in the language characteristic of more straightforward narrative sections of the Hebrew Bible, we are probably talking about around 300–600 hours with the language, depending on the learner and the context. This might mean 100-200 hours of guided instruction, whether in a classroom or through online video lessons, and 200-400 hours of other exposure, whether through films, music, or personal reading and study. Fluency in all of the Hebrew Bible: For developing competence in all of the Hebrew Bible, including more advanced poetic sections like Isaiah, Psalms, and Job, we are probably looking at something more like 700–1000 hours. Note, however, that such estimates are based on the idea that learners need to develop real language fluency, in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. When we talk about proficiency for narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible or poetic sections, we are talking about the ability not only to read them but also to hear them and process them in real time. One of the greatest challenges in the field of Biblical Hebrew pedagogy, however, lies in the fact that many institutions are structured so that students are expected to “learn” the entire language in just one year of study. By merely “covering” all the relevant grammar and a large swath of vocabulary, students are made to believe that they have “learned” the language. In reality, real proficiency and fluency comes from hundreds of hours of study and exposure to the language so that one has truly internalized the language. There are no shortcuts to language learning. There are good methods of learning, which can speed up the process, but developing real proficiency in a language takes a lot of time. As such, learners should be prepared for a long journey when they begin study. If you are a fast learner—have learned other languages—and can give roughly 6 hours a week to language study with good learning materials, you might be able to develop solid proficiency in Biblical Hebrew narrative in a year. On the other hand, if this is your first time learning a language, it might take you two years to develop the same proficiency. If you only have a few hours per week, the same goal might take two years (for those with experience learning languages) or three or four years (for the language novice). Developing proficiency in all portions of the Hebrew Bible, including advanced poetry, would likely require nearly double these time frames outlined above.
When learning any ancient language, the pronunciation system one uses is often a contentious issue. In the case of Biblical Hebrew, there are a number of important considerations to take into account. On one hand, the vowel pointing used in most print editions of the Hebrew Bible is that of the the Tiberian tradition of Biblical Hebrew. However, this tradition largely died out in the late Middle Ages and has only recently (in the last few decades) been fully expounded again by Prof. Geoffrey Khan of the University of Cambridge. While this pronunciation tradition might be the most authentic—it is the one reflected in the vowel points of the Hebrew Bible most of us use—it is quite complex and difficult and markedly differs from the pronunciation of Modern Hebrew. Another Biblical Hebrew pronunciation tradition that enjoyed significant prominence during the medieval period is the Babylonian tradition of Biblical Hebrew. From a linguistic perspective, this tradition was closely related to Tiberian Hebrew, but also exhibited marked points of difference. It is best known today through its modern descendant in the Yemenite tradition of Biblical Hebrew. Neither of these pronunciation traditions, however, are what have come to be used in Modern Hebrew today. The pronunciation used in Modern Hebrew is a mixture of the Sephardic tradition and the Ashkenazi tradition, with the vowels and syllable structure (e.g., stress patterns) coming largely from the former but the consonants from the latter. Both of these traditions go back to what is known from the Middle Ages as the Palestinian tradition of Biblical Hebrew. On BiblicalHebrew.com, we use a pronunciation system that may be regarded as being in the Sephardic line of tradition. This has the advantage of being mutually intelligible with Modern Hebrew, so that those who use the BiblicalHebrew.com materials can easily transition to Modern Hebrew and vice versa. The small points of difference, which involve pronouncing the gutturals ח, ע and the emphatic consonants ט, ק with their more historical (or “Arabic”) pronunciations—and the use of double consonants or gemination—bring our pronunciation system more in line with the phonemic system operative in Biblical Hebrew. As such, the “Sephardic” pronunciation system used on BiblicalHebrew.com has the benefits of (i) being an authentic tradition (or in one or two cases a combination of traditions), (ii) better replicating the phonemic system of Biblical Hebrew, and (iii) being mutually intelligible to users of Modern Hebrew. To those who already speak Modern Hebrew, including native speakers, the pronunciation system used on BiblicalHebrew.com will be fully intelligible but will sound like Hebrew with an “Arabic” feel.