[b-hebrew] Ancient Language Acquisition

Trevor Peterson 06peterson at cua.edu
Tue Mar 2 05:26:53 EST 2004

Jonathan Walther wrote:
> When I learned to read English as a lad, I did just that; I steadily
> read my way backwards from Alice in Wonderland, to Howard Pyle, to
> Shakespeare, to Chaucer.  Beyond Chaucer I could not go; Beowulfe feels
> very familiar, but is gibberish as far as comprehension goes.  My
> English is a conglomerate of all the variations and developements from
> the past thousand years.  Would it be a bad thing to understand ancient
> Hebrew or koine Greek in the same way?

There is a major difference. You were not learning to speak English from 
these sources. Also, you were cognizant of the different periods you 
were reading (at least, that's the way you paint the picture above). 
Imagine if you had been a foreigner trying to learn spoken English, and 
someone had given you a big bag of audio tapes, all jumbled together, 
with these titles, and told you to listen to them over and over again 
until you acquired enough English to communicate. Imagine if during that 
time, you didn't speak to anyone who already knew spoken English. What 
would your English be like? Like I said, I have no problem with students 
encountering the various dialects found within BH. Indeed, it cannot and 
should not be avoided. But I think what you described about English is a 
much better way to do it--start with one dialect, and move intentionally 
into others, so you can get a feel for both the continuity and the 
differences. And like I said before, if you take it more methodically 
like that, and the main point is to read texts, the process of 
internalization will be slow enough that you can properly assimilate the 
necessary distinctions. A beginner who is trying to learn BH for the 
first time and learning much like a person would learn a modern spoken 
language is, IMO, a quite different situation.

Incidentally, I would be curious along the lines of this thread to know 
what people think about the notion that a person ought to learn Modern 
Israeli Hebrew or spoken Arabic first, before learning ancient Semitic 
languages. The potential disadvantage is that modern speakers sometimes 
assume too much continuity between their language and the ancient forms; 
but if it were done deliberately, I think this hazard could be easily 
avoided. The benefit would be that a person could begin study of ancient 
languages with genuine fluency in a real, spoken language--something 
that may perhaps be approached, but never achieved, with ancient 
languages. In this respect, the individual could begin study of ancient 
Hebrew in the same position as an English speaker beginning to study 
Shakespeare or Chaucer. I haven't tried it myself, but I suspect that 
there would be some significant gains. Any thoughts?

Trevor Peterson

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