Choosing a Hebrew Teaching & Learning Grammar

Who knew that there were so many options?

There’s a new first-year college-level Biblical Hebrew grammar published about every six months. There are so many to choose from! What are the main choices involved? I’ve figured out these differences in approach:

  1. Is it systematic/deductive, or inductive? Does it offer principles and patterns up front, and then show examples of how these work out in practice? Or does it confront the student with (common) phenomena of the Hebrew text, familiarizing through sheer exposure, and explain what’s going on after the fact? Most grammars, such as those by Ross, Pratico & van Pelt, and Kelley do the former. A few take the inductive approach, namely Bonnie Kittel et al, and John Dobson’s Learn Biblical Hebrew.
  2. In a related question, is it purely morphological/grammatical or does it take notice of syntax and even discourse-level phenomena? That is, does it describe the Hebrew language from the smallest units steadily upwards, eventually mentioning issues of syntax about the end of the first year? Does discourse analysis feature at all? Dobson seeks to introduce syntax quite early along with word-level grammatical ideas. Rocine boasts the inclusion of discourse analysis, but I haven’t seen a copy of this quite yet. Duane Garrett’s work makes deliberate room for syntax and also discourse, but well down the track, and this is where syntax-level learning appears in most grammars.
  3. Does it stick to reading and writing Hebrew? Or is speaking and hearing the Hebrew prioritized? Another way to put this is, is it learned like a dead language (which it partly is) to simply be read? Or is it learned through conversation as today’s living languages commonly are (one of which is partly is)? The trend is toward the latter, but some think this is the wrong way to go. Randall Buth’s Living Biblical Hebrew material is enthusiastically conversational. Nancy DeClaisse-Walford in the preface to her grammar is stoutly opposed.
  4. Is it arranged like a reference grammar, treating nouns and nominals first, then eventually moving to verbs and verbals? Should a learning grammar be arranged just like a reference grammar, structurally? Is that necessarily helpful. Kelley and Pratico & van Pelt are both clear and usable, but for verbs to first appear in unit 12??? It’s like building an entire car down to the windscreen wiper blades and tyre black before inserting an engine.
  5. Is it seen as important to be able to translate English into Hebrew, even as a learning device, or is this let go?
  6. Is any attempt made to contextualize biblical Hebrew in its ancient linguistic environment (West Semitic languages) or to explain its origin or development? Most don’t.
  7. Is there any explanation of how to use language tools? Are lexica, theological wordbooks and concordances explained? Since the latter are arguably redundant in the computer age, the follow-up question is, does the grammar let on that digital language tools exist? Is it believable that most offer no such hint?
  8. Does it teach, or refresh, or simply assume the student’s English grammar? I memorably had one student (of New Testament Greek, not Hebrew) years ago who asked me halfway through the first-year course, “What’s the difference between a noun and a verb again?” I’ve come a long way as a teacher since then, let’s hope, but that tells you something about how much English grammar we can take for granted with some Aussie students! I know from experience that things are better in the US, and can be very good in the ole UK, but there may be a case for taking some time deliberately to (re)introduce English grammar. For a great example, see Gary Long’s Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Hebrew.
  9. What if vocabulary could be taught in semantic fields or domains? This might be something we can take from modern language learning, with a few tweaks. Could we teach praise terminology from the Psalms in a bundle? Legal terminology from the torah? Key storytelling or action terms that would help with narrative? Wouldn’t vocab stick better if passed on in clusters that are related in meaning and often share contexts? (I credit David Gormley-O’Brien’s talk at the SCD Teaching and Learning Conference in Sydney, September 2014, for this idea.) Cook and Holmstedt espouse this as a value in the introduction to their grammar.

With only a couple of dozen readers, I guess I’m not expecting to be inundated with feedback, but I know that one or two of you have done Hebrew, and I’d welcome any opinions from your end.

Anything to improve the student’s learning experience, and keep a few of them reading their Hebrew Bibles for years to come!

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2 thoughts on “Choosing a Hebrew Teaching & Learning Grammar

  1. Pingback: Hebrew Teaching and Learning Grammar | Melbourne School of Theology

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