[b-hebrew] Ancient Language Acquisition

Charles David Isbell cisbell at cox.net
Tue Mar 2 08:51:32 EST 2004

Peter Kirk muses: "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

Peter, I will share a personal reflection on this. My teacher, Cyrus Gordon,
learned Arabic and spoke it as fluently as a native. I once witnessed an
angry exchange with an Egyptian cab driver which convinced me that Gordon
could "think" on his feet with amazing alacrity. His Hebrew was also fluent
in spoken dialect, as I know from many conversations with him.  I know also
that Albright was fluent in both modern Hebrew and in Arabic.

Here is a second observation. During times that I have served as Rabbi or
Cantor in a local synagogue, I have often asked Israeli members to serve as
ba'al qore and to read the Torah portion. Because the pointing of the
Pentateuch uses rules far differently from the way yod, vav, and he are used
in modern Hebrew, they often found it impossible to read a biblical passage
at sight and get all the forms as the Massoretes had pointed them. HOWEVER,
if I loaned them a Tikkun la-Qor'im, they could grasp the biblical dialect
in a day or two, and then read the Torah passage in public easily. A groups
of students with a good grasp of modern Hebrew can read more Bible in one
semester than can a third year class of students who have slogged through
"biblical" Hebrew only, with no speaking and no internalization as normally
required with a modern language. I don't see much of a downside here. But
that is my personal experience and opinion only.


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