Teaching Languages

I don’t just write books. I also teach in a small, church-based seminary, where besides lecturing on systematic theology, the Bible, logic, and research methodology, I have been known to regularly teach a foreign language. For more than twenty-five years I have taught people how to read biblical Hebrew.

Besides beginning each first year class with an overview of the history of the biblical and modern Hebrew language, I usually will tell a joke that I ran across years ago in a book entitled The Jokes of Oppression: The Humor of Soviet Jews. Compiled by David A. Harris and Izrail Rabinovich, it was published in 1988. It’s a collection of jokes that Jewish people told one another under the totalitarian oppression of what is now the former Soviet Union. The story goes that an old man was sitting on a park bench in Moscow reading a book. A KJB agent approached him and asked him what he was reading. “The Hebrew scriptures.”

“In Hebrew?”

“But of course.”

“How long did it take you to learn the language?”

“Oh, three or four years I suppose.”

“Why would you waste so much time learning an obscure language like Hebrew?”

“Hebrew is the language of Heaven.”

“Ah. But what if you wind up going to the other place when you die?”

“That’s okay,” replied the old man. “I already know Russian.”

What gets the students is the statement that it may take three or four years to learn Hebrew. But that’s the norm for any language, if you intend to know it well. With a single year, I explain to my class, you can get by okay.

For instance, for my master’s degree in Semitic languages at UCLA I was required to learn a modern European language. My graduate advisor encouraged me to learn German and pointed out that there were many “teach yourself German” books available in the campus bookstore. He also explained that in order to prove my competence in German, I would have to take a standardized test that cost seventy-five dollars every time I took it.

My fellow students told me that after going through the self-help books, they only had to take the test two or three times before they managed to pass it. Since I was paying a flat fee to work on my degree at UCLA anyhow, I decided that I’d take advantage of the German classes that the university offered. So I enrolled and took a full year of German on top of the other classes (and languages) I was learning. At the end, I took the standardized test and passed it the first time. I prefer to save both money and time if I can, after all.

Now, after only one year of German, I was far from fluent. But I had a decent reading knowledge that was adequate to get a five hundred ten out of eight hundred points on the standardized test. Just barely enough to pass.

So, I explain to my first year Hebrew students by means of that story: “if you take one year of Hebrew, at the end of that year you’ll have an equally adequate understanding of the Hebrew language. You’ll be able to open up the Old Testament and read it with the aid of a dictionary (for the more uncommon words).” After all, the vocabulary of the Old Testament is only about six thousand words, compared to the English language, with well over four hundred fifty thousand. The editors of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, estimate it is considerably more than that, even—and that there are twenty-five thousand words being added every year. So learning but six thousand Hebrew words should be simple—especially since, to have a decent working vocabulary, you only need to learn about eight hundred of those, since that will cover well over ninety per cent of the words on any page.

Ordinarily, I’ll lose about ten percent of the students after the first three weeks of class—usually following the third quiz. Over all, by the end of the first year, only half the students that began in the fall quarter are still with me come spring.

This, despite the fact that I stress with my students on the first day that the key to learning a language—and most anything else, for that matter—comes down to but a single thing: perseverance. Anyone can learn a new language. Those that don’t are those that give up before the job is done. All you have to do, I explain, is show up to each class and do the work: a bit of studying, a little rote memorization—and you’ll get it. Fifty per cent of the class simply decides, each year, that they didn’t really want to learn a new language after all.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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