Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How To Learn Biblical Languages Effectively

Do you have experience of struggling with endless Hebrew or Greek paradigms trying to learn a Biblical language?

Are you an instructor struggling with pedagogy?

"How do I get my students to learn Biblical languages effectively?"
"How do I make this fun?"
"How can they preserve and develop their language skills?"
"How can they become habitual readers of Hebrew and Greek?"

When it comes to Koine Greek I belong to this second category, although I am now on a research leave and temporarily not much in the classroom.

Today I would like to promote the Biblical Language Center (BLC), founded and directed by no other than our co-blogger Randall Buth. I think the BLC holds the answer to the questions I just posed.

The whole idea behing the learning philosophy of BLC can be summarized as "language immersion." This is evidently the most effective way of learning a new language - it is the same way you learnt your mother tongue as a child. The idea is to not take a detour via another language, but to get as immersed as possible in the language you are learning:
We have found that a successful language learner already starts to think in and to understand a language before literacy. An effective audio and oral internalization of a language is necessary to enhance reading comprehension and speed, and to boost long-term retention. One cannot fluently read the Bible in its original languages, without those very languages living inside of them.

BLC's goal is for students to fluidly read the Bible with a natural and instant comprehension. Therefore, BLC immersion courses use living language methods in teaching Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek. This means that more than 90% of classroom time is filled with the spoken biblical language. The result is an internalization of the languages which speeds the pace of learning and improves the reading of the biblical text.

In order to achieve this immersion, varying techniques are used in the classroom. For example:

Total Physical Response (TPR) means that the students respond to commands that require physical movement. I remember doing a lot of this when I learnt English in primary school ("- Class, point to the blackboard with your right hand," etc). I think it is interesting that I actually remember this (I remember very little else from the textbooks).

Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) is another method used which builds language proficiency through reading and telling stories.

BLC has offered courses in Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek since 1996. They are held at Kibbutz Tzuba, 20 minutes from Jerusalem. If you are unable to attend a course you can still use the materials by yourself; they are self-explanatory, starting with a lot of pictures, and everything with MP3 recordings.

One of my Greek students studied the Living Koine Greek Introduction pt. 1 parallel with our seminary textbook and made significant progress in the course and has continued to develop his skills - he is way ahead of his fellow students. (I cannot deny that I am very glad for his interest also in Greek manuscripts. He has just completed his first thesis on a Greek manuscript, which we got registered as Greg.-Aland 2894.)


  1. Do you have to learn their pronunciation scheme, or can my absolutely atrocious Erasmian be used? I ask only because I'd rather not have to learn another pronunciation method first then learn to immerse myself.

    Mitch L.

  2. I would imagine that you learn both together with the focus on first learning to listen and understand the language.

  3. I couldn't agree more. Totally immersing yourself in a language, and not speaking your other language, is the easiest and fastest way to learn. Otherwise, you just use your own language as a crutch, and never make good progress. Doing an Ulpan in Israel, where you hear the language everywhere around you, is far better than learning from a book in the West.

  4. I think my question has been misunderstood. I speak Greek using the Erasmian pronunciation. Does Ulpan use its own devised pronunciation scheme? And if yes, do I have to relearn a new pronunciation?

    Mitch L.

  5. shalom Mitch,

    Your answer is both Yes and No. This may need some explanation.

    The ulpan/SXOLH teachers use a Koine pronunciation as determined from spellings by Greek writers from 200 BCE to 300 CE. It is neither Erasmian nor modern, though Greeks accept it as 'sounding like a Greek dialect' and Erasmians often mistake it for 'modern'. Those on this blog are especially aware of this language background because all of our manuscripts reflect this, from the earliest papyri like P52 of John (examples of HMEIN for HMIN and ISHLQEN for EISHLQEN 'entered'), p45 PEILATOS , p46 SILBANOS, p66 (see Caragounis book on NT language), p75, et al.

    However, if you already speak Greek semi-fluently, whether Erasmian or not, you may be interested in our intermediate sessions, starting next year. The teachers/hosts will be speaking in a Koine dialect, and participants will be allowed to speak any pronunciation they want to.

    In any case, it is important for everyone to learn to hear a Greek dialect spoken within the system that the NT writers had in their own ears and that the scribes were using.

    If, however, you don't already speak Greek, and most incoming students and teachers have difficulty coming out with the most basic sentences, then we recommend a good faith effort to try the ΚΟΙΝΗ ΠΡΟΦΟΡΑ. For example, in a 10-day 'gospel immersion' next Spring, listening to something within a trajectory of historical Greek sound won't hurt your Erasmian, even if you need or want to continue with it. I've done four different systems within my school careers. This last one is the one that I want to 'feel' and to come out of my mouth without thinking. We had to chose a sound system when attempting to internalize a language. How did we want to sound at the end of the day? Something historically defensible, something Greek? Or something that sounds almost offensive to Greeks and known to be artificial, even wrong? For more information I recommend a 12 page discussion of evidence and various options on our site under 'courses' 'greek materials' and download a Pronunciation PDF. We (BLC) are not focused on Homer or Attic though one can make a good case for 'Restored Attic' if interested in those periods (it is a kind of corrected, retro-fitted Erasmian, no 'theta' like English "threw", no 'phi' like English "Phishing", etc.) We ask ourselves, how would Luke or Paul have read the old texts? And more importantly, how would they have spoken to churches in Ephesus?

    PS: Sometimes Erasmians ask about learning to spell. I learn to spell from reading and writing, though I would gladly trade winning a 'spelling bee' for fluency in the language. If fact, when reading printed texts one does not need to spell at all, but they do need to read Westcott-Hort ISTHKEI 'he was standing' (pluferfect) and PEILATOS. (And if Erasmians write, they don't always spell better, they often mess up different letters like H for EI, or OY for Y. Some in the US even do A for O. And Erasmians can't really use their system in Greece. We've been able to use Koine with mutual understanding.)

    So bottom line, No, you don't have to adopt a new pronunciation, but Yes, you would be able to recognise a new pronunciation that is helpful with NT manuscripts, and you would have the opportunity to mix, ignore, and adopt as you like. I happen to have a friend who speaks a fluent Erasmian. The important thing is learning to communicate with others in Greek itself so as to internalize the language to a greater degree than is possible through what is usually called 'grammar-translation' in the field of Second Language Aquisition.

  6. You may be interested in reading this:

    An examination of the development of the pronunciation of Greek and how it affected the textual transmission of the New Testament and its consequences on meaning and doctrine