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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive New Life in the Biblical Studies Classroom

Fresh breezes are blowing from modern language instruction into the biblical language classroom, and they are bringing new life to my teaching and the teaching of others. In many places, the teaching of biblical languages has seemed to be on life support. However, for a growing number of teachers, research in the learning of modern languages, sometimes called Applied Linguistics or Second Language Acquisition, is inspiring more effective teaching of biblical languages.

In many schools the teaching of biblical languages has been declining or become ineffective. Some theological schools no longer require biblical language courses or have reduced the number required. Even in those schools that require them, many students will not continue to advanced courses after the required introductory courses, and, after their theological education, they may make little or no use of biblical languages.

This is not surprising given that the educational method traditionally used in biblical language classes has been shown by applied linguists to be ineffective and to assume an outdated and inadequate theory of language. The method traditionally used for biblical and other classical languages is what applied linguists refer to as Grammar Translation. This method of instruction originated in the teaching of Latin in the much despised grammar school. It organizes the course syllabus according to a logical arrangement of the grammar. Classroom instruction involves lectures about grammar rules, drills to aid in the rote memorization of vocabulary and grammar, and the correcting of translation assignments. Translation assignments are designed to reinforce the grammar rules being taught.

There are a number of reasons Grammar Translation is pedagogically ineffective. First, research has shown that no matter how clearly grammar is explained or how thoroughly and creatively students are drilled, they do not learn grammatical forms in the logical order provided by the teacher. This has been my experience in the classroom, and I suspect other teachers of biblical languages will have had the same experience.

Second, in contrast to current trends in education, Grammar Translation is teacher- rather than learner-centered and does not foster critical thinking. The teacher decides what should be learned, the order in which it should be learned, how best to learn it, and how learning will be assessed. Little attention is paid to the interests and needs of the learner, and little or no accommodation is made for different learning styles and intelligences. In fact, in my experience, the reaction of a teacher to the ineffectiveness of the method can be to become even more teacher-centered and to assume that the problem is with the student. Such teachers become even more paternalistic by providing simpler explanations and better drills. Moreover, the emphasis on rote memorization is in stark contrast to the emphasis on critical analysis in higher education.

In addition to being an ineffective method of teaching a language, Grammar Translation assumes a problematic definition of language. Many modern linguists would not consider grammar central to a language; they use broader definitions of language that include semantics and pragmatics. Biblical scholarship may need to have a critical discussion about the extent to which a grammar, largely identified with the grammars of Latin, Greek, and the European languages, has been imposed on Hebrew.

Although I have emphasized the problems with Grammar Translation, the method, or at least elements of the method, will probably continue to have some place in the teaching of classical languages. It is a quick way to familiarize some learners with the grammatical forms often referred to in the academic literature. Grammar rules can help adult learners learn a language, and some applied linguists are now discussing how and when grammar can best be taught.

Until recently the influences of Second Language Acquisition on the teaching of biblical languages have been limited and dated. The organization of grammar from simple to complex and inductive learning of grammar date back to linguists and language teachers who were advocating reform around 1900. The learning of vocabulary in descending order of frequency was one element of the Oral/Situational Approach of the 1950s and 60s.

In my own teaching I have tried to move away from Grammar Translation and to integrate insights from Applied Linguistics. This can be challenging because most new methods require more of the teacher than Grammar Translation. Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, many new language teaching methods, based on different theories of language and language acquisition and approaches, began to appear in modern language teaching. In the 1990s, these crystallized into what could be called Communicative Language Approaches. These approaches generally agree that people learn a language best, even the grammar, when the focus is not on grammar, but on meaningful communication in a non-threatening environment.

As those who have read the introduction to my textbook will know (see bibliography below), the way I have attempted to apply this is by teaching Hebrew in the context of exegesis. This allows me to make the classroom a little less threatening. Instead of focusing on correcting students translation exercises, I can focus on discussing interpretation and the issues involved in making interpretive decisions. I still have quizzes and exams, but I include exegetical questions and replace some exams with exegetical papers. This allows students who may not be as good at memorization to get credit for other aptitudes. This approach is more learner-centered, because the goal of most theological and religious studies students in taking a biblical language is to use it in interpretation of the Bible. I can also teach grammar as students raise questions in the process of discussing interpretation. Discussions of the methods and issues involved in exegesis can also foster critical analysis.

Recently I have been encouraged that other teachers of biblical languages are employing insights from applied linguistics. In the Best Practices in Teaching Workshop at the SBL Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Randall Buth demonstrated the use of the Total Physical Response Method, one of the Communicative Language Approaches, for teaching biblical Greek. Buth acted out commands in Greek, and soon volunteers were following suit by doing the movements themselves. The effectiveness of this method in Buth's demonstration and in the literature is impressive. I am planning to revive my spoken Hebrew and begin using it in my teaching of biblical Hebrew.

Clayton Croy encouraged people to use music and skits. This would fit with a Communicative Language Approach, and the research suggests this would make language instruction more effective. I am excited about the possibilities of creating conversations using biblical idioms or having students act out biblical stories as part of discussing their interpretation.

Although some online platforms can be teacher-centered, I was impressed by the extent to which Joel Harlow's online course, which he presented in the same session, was learner-centered. Although many of us would probably prefer to teach a language on campus, that may be an impediment to learning for many mature students. They may have family, community, and work responsibilities that make it difficult to move or commute to a school. Even if they live close to a school, these commitments, may make it difficult to attend term courses. Thus online course respond to learner needs. Harlow's approach is also learner-centered in that he allows students to take up to six months to complete a course and to do the assignments whenever they are ready.

Several of the presentations planned for the Best Practices in Teaching Workshop at this fall's Annual Meeting in Philadelphia continue these emphases. Sharon Alley plans another presentation of the Total Physical Response Method. A presentation by Paul Overland on Second Language Acquisition strategies in ancient language classrooms is scheduled. Mary Helen Schertz will present a method that focuses on student interpretations in a non-threatening and enjoyable way. Helene Dallaire and Sandra Polaski will share experiences teaching NT Greek online. Andrew Vaughn, who is also involved in developing digital language resources for SBL, will demonstrate the use of web-based audio aids.

There are two sections of the Best Practices in Teaching Worship planned for Philadelphia: S19-103, Saturday Nov. 19 at 4 p.m., and S20-53, Sunday Nov. 20 at 1 p.m. Also, one of the Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies sections will have a panel discussion on learner centered teaching (S19-51, Saturday Nov. 19 at 1 p.m.); in addition, the National Association of Professors of Hebrew has a section devoted to "Adult Learning Styles and Hebrew Teaching" (S20-123, Sunday, Nov. 20 at 4 p.m.).

Truly, the growing number of teachers using learner centered, Communicative Language Approaches has the potential to revolutionize the teaching of biblical languages.

Arthur Walker-Jones,University of Winnipeg,


Byrnes, Heidi, ed. Learning Foreign and Second Languages: Perspectives in Research and Scholarship. Teaching Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. New York: Modern Language Association, 1998.

Richards, Jack C. and Theodore S. Rogers. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge Language Teaching Library. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Walker-Jones, Arthur. Hebrew for Biblical Interpretation. Resources for Biblical Study, 48. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.

Citation: Arthur Walker-Jones, " New Life in the Biblical Studies Classroom," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:


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