[b-hebrew] organic language learning (was: "Basic question on Qal, Piel, and Pual")

Deborah Millier deborahmillier at yahoo.com
Wed Jul 23 18:53:13 EDT 2003

T. Peterson wrote:

> Aside from classical scholars 
> and people with physical 
> handicaps, almost no one 
> reads a language without 
> knowing how to speak it. 
> Certainly, living writing 
> systems are not designed for 
> people to do so--they are 
> developed by and for 
> native speakers and work 
> because they presume a 
> certain level of oral 
> competence with the language. 

Near the school from which I recently graduated
(Jerusalem University College) there is a gate leading
into the Old City of Jerusalem:  Zion Gate.  Attached
to an outside wall is a brass plaque commemorating one
of the Israeli Army's Engineering units pulling down
enemy positions and clearing mines from the gate area
in 1967.  

One of my Hebrew professors at JUC, Randall Buth, was
taking a well-known hebraist friend of his from the
States (Randy graciously never revealed his identity
but assured those of us in class that day that we all
would recognize his name) on a short tour and they
stopped off at Zion Gate, where the brass plaque
"What does that say?," the celebrated author of a few
Hebrew reference works asked my professor.  

"Read it yourself," replied Dr. Buth.  

The famed hebraist strained then finally gave up
saying, "I've tried but I'm used to only biblical
Hebrew.  It's just no use."  

Dr. Buth was taken aback.  Here is a plaque that any
Israeli third grader could read, but this man, the
author of several authoritative books on the Hebrew
language, could not make out its simple message. 
Furthermore, every word on the plaque save one could
be found in some form in the Bible.  However, the
Hebrew on the plaque was not pointed or in a biblical
setting and therefore threw the American professor
off-kilter.  He was used to and quite capable at
dissecting Hebrew into components for analysis, but
not used to just reacting to it as a living language
which can be absorbed and utilized naturally.  His is
not an isolated case.
On another occasion Dr. Buth was at an SBL conference.
 He ran into a German man who had recently written an
article on some aspect of the Hebrew language and
published it in JBL.  When Dr. Buth began conversing
with the man, it became clear that the German
academic's English was not quite up to snuff to
discuss certain points.  After several unsuccessful
tries in rusty German, it dawned on Dr. Buth that they
both had a common language in biblical Hebrew. 
However, when he tried just a few sentences he
realized that the man was staring at him dumbfounded. 
"What language was that that you were speaking?,"
asked the German man.  The author of the article on
Hebrew could not even recognize the language he was
such an expert in.  Why?  Because the German man, like
so many of us, was used to reading it as a dead
language, but could not converse-- much less think--
in Hebrew as a living language.

My first two weeks in Hebrew class under Dr. Buth were
spent in a garden without a notebook.  My class
practiced TPR (total physical response) and acquired a
"feel" for the language, internalizing vocabulary and
grammar before we ever started analyzing Hebrew.  We
graduated to skits, then texts.  Then paradigms and

I guess I say all this to illustrate what Trevor
mentions above: "living writing systems
are...developed by and for native speakers and work
because they presume a certain level of oral
competence with the language."  Few of us on this list
are native (modern) Hebrew speakers.  None of us were
raised in an environment wherein biblical Hebrew was
what we heard in the kitchen.  But we might do better
pedagogically to treat biblical Hebrew as a real
language, to be heard and spoken BEFORE we ever teach
students to read and write it.  Much less analyze it.

-- Michael Millier

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