In a large country like the US, with English being the dominant language in the world, learning a new language is often not a priority. Young adults typically have little experience learning a new language. This trickles down to the seminary, with most students dreading the required study of biblical Hebrew or Greek. The greater fear resides more frequently with learning Hebrew since most students had a small encounter with Greek letters when learning math. With Hebrew, most students are in uncharted territory: a different alphabet, writing from right to left, and almost no cognates.  

After teaching biblical Hebrew for 22 years, I struggled with the question: how can I teach my students Hebrew without stressing them out? I always knew certain students would get it while others wouldn’t, and for all of them, it would be a mentally stretching experience. I have had the experience several times of asking alumni how their Hebrew experience was, and the response was often, I am sorry, but ministry demands made it impossible for me to keep up my Hebrew. While students often did very well after having invested a good year of studying Hebrew, the common story I was hearing was just three to four years after graduating, they had lost, for all practical purposes, their ability to handle the Hebrew text for the sake of their ministry. 

This caused me to wonder if we could improve our pedagogical methodology. The traditional methodology for the biblical languages is to teach the grammar, have the students memorize a fair amount of basic vocabulary, and then set them loose on decoding the biblical texts. But this is not how modern languages are taught. The excuse given for this different methodology is that biblical Hebrew isn’t a living language, but I wondered if we were missing out on something more. 

In 2012, I heard of a method that attempted to teach biblical Hebrew as a living language. Teaching a modern language as a living language is nothing new, but to teach a language that hasn’t been spoken for over 2,000 years as a living language was novel. This new approach was first attempted by Randall Buth from the Biblical Language Center. In this approach, the teacher starts from the first class by giving commands to students in biblical Hebrew. The students listen and carry out the commands after simple instructions. This is like how children are often taught a new language. Your parents would try to teach you by giving you simple commands first, like “Open your mouth,” “Walk to daddy,” etc. With the help of props (toys), we have students listen and act out commands, and listen to stories which we illustrate with motions and/or props. This method in second language acquisition is called Total Physical Response (TPR). In TPR, the student is actively involved when he or she is learning the language. The student acts out what is being said, and after some time, responds in Hebrew. We play games, make up stories, cook food, and really do anything we can to make the language more tactile and concrete.  

There is even a scientific defense for this. When we learn a language the traditional way with memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary cards, we store it in a place in the brain, not where we normally store language but in the part that is related to math. What we really do with the old methodology is decode a text instead of really reading it. When we learn language as a living language, we store this in the left side of the brain, where we normally store our languages. This approach uses the best practices for second language acquisition, making learning biblical Hebrew easier, more efficient, and more accessible to all ages. This is how modern languages are taught, and this method is now applied to an ancient language. With the living language approach, we want to internalize the language so that the exercises and systems we use inside the classroom, such as responding to a question and answering it, is something that gradually becomes second nature.  

One will not become an expert in the biblical languages after one year of language study, but the student will appreciate the Scriptures more, will realize first-hand the depth of God’s Word, and will be more confident presenting God’s Word because of their ability to read the Scriptures in the original languages. This approach is aiding the student to make this necessary learning experience more enjoyable, and ultimately, more conducive to remembering so they may use it in their futures 

Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature and has been teaching at Western Seminary since 2000. He leads the Israel Study Tour every other year, and is an active member of his church, Trinity Church of Portland.