I have learned many things over the course of my years teaching and tutoring Biblical Hebrew.  For most people, the process of learning a new language is an intimidating one. This feeling of intimidation is compounded when you learn an ancient language, especially a Semitic one. The letters are foreign, apparently consisting of symbols rather than letters. It sounds strange to the ear. OK, more than strange – downright foreign. So, when it comes to learning a language like Biblical Hebrew, what is there to be done?

The answer is “plenty.” But there’s one thing in particular that “must” be done: you need to learn how to READ it.

Almost without fail, the students that struggle in Hebrew are the ones that don’t learn how to read it, precisely because of what I mentioned above. It’s scary.  It’s intimidating.  It’s foreign. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of practice. Unfortunately (or, for the nerds among us, fortunately), it’s all necessary.

In fact, studies have shown that the more senses that you can engage in learning a language, the better that language will “stick” and the easier the process will be. In case you’ve forgotten, the senses are sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.

OK, so “tasting” and “smelling” are definitely out of the question. But three of the five are definitely present in the language-learning process:

SIGHT: For the visual learners among us, this is particularly important.LOOK at the text or passage you’re reading.  Engage with the letters and vowels. Use Flashcards. Watch demonstration videos. Read Hebrew cartoons (more on that in a later post!).
HEARING (this is my learning style!): As read, listen to your voice. Make note of what you’re saying.  Record yourself saying the text (important: correctly!) and play it back.  Download audio versions of flash cards.
TOUCH: Write it. It’s a pain, and some colleges and seminaries  don’t even require this step. However, again, engaging as many senses as you can while learning the language helps immensely with the process. Plus, you can integrate the “writing” component with the “hearing” component and kill two birds with one stone for added effectiveness.

So, what’s the foundation you need to learn Hebrew? Read it! The ability to read the language is the cornerstone from which all other learning is derived, writing and vocabulary in particular.  You don’t want to be caught trying to memorize vocabulary by sight.  Unless you’re a genius with a photographic memory, this isn’t gonna work. But if one can read, memorizing vocabulary becomes exponentially easier, the “auditory” sense is immediately engaged, and you know “how” to write.

I mentioned above that the students who struggle with the language are the ones who don’t learn how to read it. On the other hand, the students that take the time to read and practice with the language are among the most successful students. In the Sea of Intimidation, perhaps this idea will serve to encourage you on your learning journey.

Now go read some Hebrew. 🙂

3 thoughts on “The key(s) to success in Biblical Hebrew

  1. Shelley Lorraine Kennedy says:

    Do you have any suggestions for people who have had multiple cancers and have chemo brain? I have been studying Biblical Hebrew for four years. I still do not have it mastered. I have to repeat over and over and I do not dare to stop because it will disappear. Hopefully you have a suggestion. I read out loud, to myself, and I write it. I am now joining Hebrew groups hoping to find some other forums to learn.

    • Jonathan Beck says:

      Hi Shelly! We do have some suggestions posted here for that – and I think we plan on developing our own forums in the future!

      As far as your suggestions go, I’m very ignorant of how chemo affects the brain. That said, I have had two grandparents who have died of cancer, as well as a close friend. It’s a rough business.

      I do believe that it is possible to re-train brain cells or rebuild them, however. I think the more you do intellectually-stimulating activities (like Hebrew!) it will become easier. I’m not a doctor, though – this is just a guess from what I’ve heard and read from other folks.

      Don’t be discouraged in the amount of time that it takes to “master” Hebrew. I don’t believe anyone has truly “mastered” the language – there is so much more to learn! The biblical corpus is vast and covers more than a thousand years – to “master” all of the varying features of the language as it changes over time would take a lifetime of study.

      Don’t give up… keep reading! Thanks for choosing to be involved with us. Please feel free to contact either of us if you have questions in the future! -Jonathan

    • Hi, Shelley.

      בֶּאֱמֶת כָּל־הַכָּבוֹד לָךְ! I’m excited to hear that you have a passion for Hebrew at all. It’s pretty rare nowadays for people even to take interest in classical languages (in which I would like to include our dear language), so it’s great to hear about your desire to retain what you’re learning and to make Hebrew part of your own way of looking at the world.

      It’s hard to hear of what you’ve gone through and how the treatment has affected your memory. I hadn’t heard the term “chemo brain” before you wrote it here, but I can imagine what you mean.

      What I would suggest is that you find as many paths of input as you can. It would seem like Hebrew is a silent language when your only input is sitting down by yourself with a book and reading down a page. I would suggest that you make it more alive, if you will. There are several fantastic recordings of the Bible online. I would recommend that you download entire chapters to your phone (or use an application that allows you to listen to chapters at a time).

      We Jews are at an advantage. Not only do we have Israel as a homeland, where Hebrew is spoken every day (and that is my biggest advantage with Hebrew, for sure), but we also have synagogues scattered all over the world where people say prayers in the Hebrew language. Not everyone speaks it, but at least they pray in the language. So, I recommend two things:

      1. Download some audio files of the Hebrew Bible or an application that has the whole Bible recorded. You might also memorize portions of the Bible as they are sung to trope. If you need websites or app recommendations, I would be glad to provide them.
      2. See if there is a synagogue that you can visit in your local area. Be upfront with them. Let them know your situation: both that you are a student of the Hebrew language and that you’re interested in becoming better acquainted with the Jewish prayer services. There shouldn’t be any problem getting you into a Hebrew-rich environment for at least a couple of times a month.

      If you need help at any step of the way, please contact me here on the site.

      I wish you all the best, and if you would like a reading partner a few times, I try to make myself available as much as possible on Zoom for encouraging people to move forward and to hang on to Hebrew.

      Blessings,
      Jason

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