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Even if not as "useful," and proportionally much less popular than modern languages, in absolute numbers there is still a considerable interest in learning ancient languages. The demand is answered with a plethora of popular as well as academic textbooks, programs, and courses, some of them attempting to exploit the latest information technologies.[1] This recent supply of IT based programs should not, however, mislead, us into assuming that the emergence of real new approaches in imparting ancient languages has occurred. Students' achievements, their facility in accessing the classical texts, and their overall satisfaction have not necessarily improved.[2] Moreover, there is hardly any research to be found dedicated specifically to ancient language pedagogy.[3] In spite of this apparently thin layer of modern technology, the teaching of ancient languages is usually characterized by conservative pedagogical notions and methods in need of reexamination and much change.

Modern foreign languages are usually taught by professional language instructors, who can enjoy the products of much theoretical research, new methodologies, programs, and a great variety of learning aids. Ancient languages, on the other hand, are usually taught by scholars of history or theology who are not trained in foreign-language pedagogy. They tend to be more concerned with research and teaching in their own field of expertise, and in preparing the next generation of scholars, than teaching an ancient language introductory course. The result is unfortunate; in many cases academic courses have an exaggerated emphasis on linguistics,[4] serving well the few students interested in pursuing more advance levels. However, such courses fail the majority of the students, not providing them, through the thick wall of grammar and artificial sentences, with access to meaningful texts and to the richness of content, culture, and spirit they hope to attain.[5] This is unfortunate as learning a language should be considered spiral, not linear. When introducing an ancient language, one should try and present it in broad strokes, providing the minimal most efficient grammatical tools that will allow the earliest access possible to an authentic text, even if only short and simple. Thus, students who take only the introductory course will still have a chance to appreciate some of the flavor and meaning of the original texts, while others who wish to specialize will have a solid enough broad base, allowing them to proceed further on the learning spiral.[6]

This article stems from my experimentation in creating a curriculum described in more detail in "The Introduction to Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way".[7] Examples for the subjects discussed will therefore be from Biblical Hebrew.

Research related to the teaching of modern languages, first language (L1) or foreign language (L2), has drawn insights from studies in related fields. The teaching of ancient languages, too, can benefit from them. Some of the questions raised concerning L2 are presented here with their possible relevance to our topic.

What should go into a grammar book? The answer depends on the task the grammar is supposed to facilitate. As says Halliday in An Introduction to Functional Grammar, "there is usually a trade-off of breadth against depth: we need both highly specialized machines that will do just one job perfectly, and less specialized machines that will do a broad range of jobs effectively."[8] Indeed, one of the problems with introductory textbooks and courses is the difficulty they have in presenting a program whose clear objectives are compatible with realistic expectations from students. Determining the appropriate balance of breadth and depth is one of the initial major steps a curriculum designer has to take. How much and in how much detail do we impart the information in order to facilitate students' access to a straightforward ancient text by the completion of the introductory course? Moreover, what should be delayed to more advanced, scholarly stages, when students will be expected to cope with more complex and demanding texts?

Functional grammar as opposed to the traditional linguistic approach, does not deal with forms first and only later with meaning. It regards language as a system of meaning expressed through forms. The grammatical analysis of a text is done, therefore, while relating the text to its context of situation and culture. A text can be highly complex, including actions, ideas, and emotions: "An automatic parser can handle a great deal of grammar; but there are always indeterminacies, alternative interpretations, places where one has to balance one factor against the other."[9] This is certainly an important lesson to remember while teaching the Biblical Hebrew verb system, for example. Rather than a long and confusing list of translation options into English tenses, as usually offered by academic textbooks, one should offer in the introductory course a minimal list of the most common interpretations of any verb form and encourage the students to use context and common sense while reading a straightforward text. In most cases, the lexical meaning and context can place the action depicted by the verb on a graphic timeline. Later on, after being exposed to an adequate amount of relatively easy authentic texts and advancing to more challenging ones, more sophisticated grammatical descriptions may be needed. Opening the students up to a different perception of time evident in the biblical text, more "fluid" and much less defined, is a worthwhile initial task even if not always easy. By avoiding temporarily the need to assign exact English tense to a Hebrew verb (in context) and placing it on a graphic time line, one can envision the situation described in the context and only then express it in English.[10]

Knowing about the nature of languages, and the way they are acquired either as L1 or as L2, is important to the teaching of languages. Pedagogical grammar research is concerned with all language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Still, the teaching of ancient languages, whose objective is "passive" skill (reading with comprehension) only, would no doubt benefit from such research. Here are few issues raised and their relevance to the teaching of ancient languages

The Contrastive hypothesis proposes that learner's L1 will have significant influence on the acquisition of L2, depending on positive or negative transfer possible in cases of similarity or difference (existence or non-existence) of grammatical items. The similar can be taken for granted, while the foreign would need more attention, planning and time.[11]

Another hypothesis proposes that "syntactic and morphological items in a given language can be classified according to whether they are developmental or variational."[12] The developmental items emerge from one another and occur in a learner's productive repertoire in a set sequence, whereas variational items can be learned at any time. This seems true also for a non-productive skill (reading). It might be more helpful, though, to determine the nature of the various grammatical systems on a continuum, from the more developmental to the least developmental, the variational. Learning the Hebrew possessive suffix, for example, depends on familiarity with only a few concepts: person, gender, and number. It should be considered much more independent (variational) than the hif'il prefix form of the hollow verbs, for example, requiring familiarity with many more grammatical items (the above three, together with root, stem, root groups, interpretation of the verb on the time line, etc.). There cab be much more flexibility, therefore, in timing the teaching of the former than of the latter.

When introducing an ancient language, one should try and teach as many as possible of the frequent, more-variational items earlier on. If grammar is demonstrated (as it should) by authentic passages, the richer the repertoire of the variational items, the easier it will be, later on, to find fuller and more meaningful passages to demonstrate larger developmental systems.[13]

How explicitly should grammar be taught? Accurate grammatical understanding and accurate rules are "neither realistic nor desirable in learning/teaching situations beyond the low-level area."[14] Users of L1, as well as advanced learners of L2, can internalize higher level of grammar through massive exposure; "any language user 'knows' that language is like this,"[15] without necessarily knowing the rules. Westney suggests that "an adequate model of language must allow for structure to be relatively obscure and only indirectly accessible to consciousness." Therefore, massive intake of straightforward authentic ancient language texts during and following the introductory course may be more effective in absorbing the way that language "is" than going through innumerable high-level rules during the introductory course. I offer students an admittedly simplified model of possible interpretations of the verb form.[16] Covering more and more texts, during the course and beyond, would eventually allow them a "semi" unconscious grasp of many passages and facilitate legitimate, educated guesses without necessarily consulting the long and confusing lists of assigned English tenses offered by traditional Biblical Hebrew textbooks.

What should be the characteristics of grammar rules offered to the learner? Rules, it is suggested, should be descriptive with predictive power, relevant to the learners' needs, taking into account L1/L2 contrasts. They should be true, concrete, simple, clear, non-technical, parsimonious, cumulative, and in a rule-of-thumb form.[17] Rules can be presented in various forms; i.e., formal rules, schemata, formulas, paradigms, conditions, constraints. They should be simple and compatible with the current level, but at the same time accurate enough and capable of gradual integration into broader patterns. As opposed to formal rules of grammar, which are abstract generalizations and linguistically sound, the suggested :rules of thumb" are usable informal formulations, limited in validity and scope to the current level of the students. Oversimplified rules, though, pose challenges as they might appear in later stages as inadequate, if not false.[18] Pedagogical rules, which impart only "partial truth," should nevertheless be formulated in such a way that they do not lead students to false inferences or over-generalization.[19] Students' attention should certainly be drawn to the simplified nature of the pedagogical rules presented.

A program based on pedagogical grammar does not offer "the whole truth." It contains grammatical systems presented to be learned and drilled, in order to develop competency and proficiency. Even this is done gradually, while weighing all of the distance from L1, the relations among the various grammatical systems and items, frequency, level, etc.[20] Pedagogical grammar negotiates school objectives, learners' expectations and preferences, teacher's overall educational ideology, course length, and other constraints.

The target texts (oral or written) that learners of a modern language are expected to cope with are of immeasurable number, still growing, and of many genres, whereas students learning Biblical Hebrew, for example, study the unchanging classical corpus of mostly the Hebrew Bible, a defined target text consisting of fewer than 305,000 words. Moreover, considering the expectation to acquire proficiency in all language skills, learning a modern language is a long process, requiring a gestation period before the emergence of the productive skills.[21] On the other hand, the introduction of Biblical Hebrew, for example, studied in academic settings, is in many cases just a step away from the study of some of the very difficult chapters of the Bible (i.e., Deuteronomy, Amos, Job), a study not limited to the linguistic aspects but exploring the theological, historical, or literary. The objectives, course length, framework, and corpora are different for modern languages and ancient languages. Learning processes may differ in part, and so should teaching strategies. While focusing on ancient languages therefore, it would be worthwhile repeating some of the questions raised in pedagogical grammar and at the same time adding new ones more specific to ancient languages. Such questions would include: How do you find the balance between lexical, grammatical frequency and difficulty? Does an artificial made-up text facilitate or delay access to authentic text? How much exposure to level-appropriate texts should be expected before moving on to more challenging ones

Often, students approach ancient languages intimidated by their perceived "terrible" difficulty and with low confidence in their ability to overcome them. To deal with this, we should try and learn more about the affective aspects of learning and what enhances learning in adults from developments in fields such as cognitive psychology or neuroscience.[22] In planning my curriculum for the introduction of Biblical Hebrew, I have been inspired the mediated learning experience theory.[23] Mediated learning experience theory deals with learning how to learn, or cognitive modifiability.[24] Mediated learning experience happens when a mediator (a parent or a teacher) stands between the stimuli (the material taught) and the learners. The mediator modifies the information by selection, filtering, sequencing, timing, scaffolding, etc. In an interactive experience, the learners absorb not only the information submitted, but also the meaning attributed to it. Thus, a cognitive structure is built, which helps the learners transcend any particular subject learned at one time, recognize patterns, and understand how parts relate to the whole. The development of the cognitive structures enables the learners to draw logical inferences and eventually use them in the future to organize, interpret and understand new stimuli.

In my introductory curriculum for Biblical Hebrew, for example, there is an attempt to present the students with a large picture of the language. We do zoom into this picture to study various grammatical subjects in detail to the extent deemed appropriate for the level. At the same time, we keep zooming out every now and then to look at the whole picture and to pay attention to features and principles that will keep reappearing in other areas. Thus, while spending much time learning the qal, the most frequent verb stem, students' attention is continuously drawn to all that is common with, and transferable to, the other verb stems. Even though these other stems are taught only in the last part of the course, their color coded paradigm posters are visible throughout the verb learning process (75 percent of the course). Students learn not only the particular, but get a sense of and an easier access to other pieces of the whole puzzle.[25]

Finally, much learning, drilling, and reading, has to be done independently outside the classroom and beyond the introductory level. In order to foster this independence teachers have to provide "advice about how to explore the system independently."[26] Therefore, successful learning strategies should be encouraged. They include willingness to take risks, tolerance for ambiguity and vagueness, attention to linguistic form, and readiness for inferences and educated guesses.[27]

Ancient language instructors wishing to enhance the textbook-based programs they are using with additional material, and curriculum developers creating new curricula, would certainly find information technology a versatile and empowering resource. However, before resorting to its tempting array of tools, they should first contemplate the reasons, the objectives, and the ways in which every ancient language should be taught. Drawing from foreign language research and practice and from related fields can help us design better curricula, prioritize their components, and present them in an appealing, efficient, effective, and less intimidating way, which will surely result in more meaningful learning experiences as well as easier instruction. Individual departments in academia may not have the necessary resources to accomplish such research independently. To this end, possibilities of interdisciplinary work with other departments should be explored.

[1] Timothy Hill, "HyperRote?: The Role of it in Ancient Language Teaching," Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge (2007). Unpublished.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Unfortunately, because of my lack of Russian, I could not access research done in the department of ancient languages in Moscow State University, which has "Theory and Methodology of Teaching Ancient Languages" as one of its main fields of research.

[4] P. W. Griffin, “Killing a Dead Language: A Case against Emphasizing Vowel Pointing when Teaching Biblical Hebew,” The SBL Forum (2007) n.p. Cited May 19, 2007. Online:

[5] Hill, "HyperRote?."

[6] Rahel Halabe, "The Introduction to Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way," Hebrew Higher Education 12 (2007): 101-19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] M. A. K. Halliday, An Introduction to Functional Grammar (London: Edward Arnold, 1993), xxx.

[9] Halliday, Introduction to Functional Grammar, xvi.

[10] See detailed examples in Halabe, "Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way."

[11] David Nunan, "Linguistic Theory and Pedagogic Practice," in Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar (Terence Odlin, ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 271-92.

[12] Nunan, "Linguistic Theory and Pedagogic Practice."

[13] Halabe, "Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way."

[14] Paul Westney, "Rules and Pedagogical Grammar," in Terence Odlin, ed., Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar, 72-95.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Halabe, "Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way."

[17] Westney, "Rules and Pedagogical Grammar."

[18] Ibid.

[19] S. Blum-Kulka, "Few Comments on the Demands from Pedagogical Grammar," Minha leqodesh: The Council for the Teaching of Hebrew (1979). (Hebrew)

[20] Bloom-Kulka, "Few Comments on the Demands from Pedagogical Grammar."

[21] Nunan, "Linguistic Theory and Pedagogic Practice."

[22] MaryKate Morse, "Enhancing the Learning and Retention of Biblical Languages for Adult Students," Teaching Theology and Religion 7 (2004): 45-50.

[23] R. Feuerstein, R. Miller, M. Hoffman, Y. Rand, Y. Mintzker, and M. R. Jensen, "Cognitive Modifiability in Adolescence: Cognitive Structure and the Effects of Intervention," The Journal of Special Education 15 (1981): 269-87.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Halabe, "Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way."

[26] Terence Odlin, "Introduction," in Terence Odlin, ed. Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar, 1-22.

[27] Westney, "Rules and Pedagogical Grammar."

Rahel Halabe, Vancouver School of Theology


Citation: Rahel Halabe, " Ancient Languages are Still Around, But Do We Really Know How to Teach Them? ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2008]. Online:


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