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Learning Biblical Languages: Language Learning Strategies

Introduction

Here are some methods that I have developed through my own experience with the languages. Not all of these methods will be best for everyone, but if you are unsure of where to begin, you might consider trying some of these methods as a starting point for your language study.

Structuring Your Time to Succeed

Here are a few suggestions for how to best structure your time to succeed in your language study:

  1. Work on language study a little each day. Memorizing vocabulary and grammatical forms works most effectively if you work on it throughout the week rather than cramming it before the quiz. Your brain is wired to retain information through repetition spaced out over time. Moreover, it will facilitate long-term retention so that you can retain the use of the languages for a lifetime of ministry.  
  2. Budget your time. The classes are set up with the expectation that you will put in 2 hours outside of class for every one hour in class. This means you should "budget" 6 hours of study time outside of class for a 3 credit hour class. Here is one way you might plan on breaking up that time:

3 hours

classtime

1-2 hours

textbook reading

3-4 hours

memorization and review

2 hours

working on exercises and homework

  1. Organize your language studies. It is recommended that you organize your weekly study in the following order: (1) read the material in the grammar textbook; (2) memorize the vocabulary and grammatical forms; (3) do the translation exercises. It is important to do the exercises after you have read and memorized the material as the culmination of your weekly work because it solidifies the memorization that you have done. Furthermore, you will be able to do the exercises more quickly if you have the material memorized and don't have to constantly flip back to look up vocabulary and grammatical forms.
  2. Schedule your study time out. Here is one example of a weekly schedule:

Monday

Memory work (30 min)

Class (3 hours)

Tuesday

textbook reading (1 hour)

Make flashcards (30 min)

Wednesday

Memory work (30 min)

Thursday

Memory work (30 min)

Homework (1 hour)

Friday

Memory work (30 min)

Saturday

Memory work (30 min)

Homework (1 hour)

Sunday

Rest

Reading a Grammar

Grammar textbooks can be very difficult to use. Here are some tips for making the most out of your textbook:

  1. Typically Grammar books have less than half the number of pages per week compared to other textbooks. However, expect to read it much more slowly because it is more technical.

  2. Read actively, not passively. Ask questions about the reading, and try to put it in your own words. Summarize paragraphs and sections in the margins of the book. Underline and write in the book.

  3. Here is one way to read a grammar to read it actively. Read the assigned chapter three times:

    1. Flyover (5 min): This is the first read-through. Pay attention to the introduction and the section headings, and take note of paradigms, charts, or illustrations. When you get through this reading, see if you can answer the following question: "In one sentence, what was this chapter about?"

    2. On the second read-through, read quickly from beginning to end (15–20 minutes): Read thoroughly, but don’t stop—even if you don’t understand something. Write your question on the margin or on a piece of paper and come back to it once you have had a chance to get the big picture.

    3. Excavation (30–40 minutes): This is the most detailed read-through. Dig deeply, attempting to comprehend as much as possible. Here is where active reading becomes most important:

      1. Focus on a paragraph at a time. Slow down and read it one sentence at a time if you need to.

      2. Write in the book! Underline the main points, summarize paragraphs in your own words, and note similarities and differences in the grammatical forms.

      3. Look for the major points: main paradigms vs. exceptions; word forms vs. grammatical meaning.

      4. If you are unfamiliar with a particular grammatical term (e.g., what is an “infinitive”?), look it up in the appendix or in a dictionary or other resource. (See some great resources for this under the tab "Grammar Helps" above.)

Memorizing Vocabulary and Grammatical Forms

Memorizing vocab and grammar can be challenging, but is an important part of learning to use the language. Here are some tips for how to memorize vocab and grammatical forms (paradigms):

  1. Time spent memorizing vocab and grammatical forms will pay off later. If you understand the grammatical concepts and can mentally link them to the patterns of letters, then reading, translating, and analyzing Hebrew and Greek becomes simple. If you cannot recognize the information encoded in the patterns of letters, then you will not be able to read, translate, or understand the text. It's that simple. Furthermore, those who cut corners with memorization only add time to their homework, as they have to continually flip back and forth to the charts and vocab, and are unable to translate anything without the use of helps.

  2. Memorizing can be difficult. The good news is that God has designed your brain to learn new information; you just need to learn to tap in to how your brain is designed to work. Just as a body builder purposefully engages in practices that feed into his body's potential to gain strength, you need to engage in practices that will channel your natural abilities with the result of retaining grammatical data. Below are some recommendations for memorizing vocab and grammatical forms.
  3. Memorizing Vocabulary. There are a number of ways to go about vocab memorization. The following are some tips and methods.

    1. Here are a few tips for vocab memorization:

      1. Repetition over time. The most important principle for vocab memorization is repeatedly exposing yourself to the words and their English equivalents over time. This is called "spaced repetition." This is why studying vocab for 30 minutes a day four or five days a week is better than two hours once a week. When you first start memorizing a vocab word, you will need to see it numerous times, but as you begin to memorize it, you can increase the time between exposure, until you are only reviewing it occasionally.

      2. Using multiple senses. The more ways you can expose yourself to the word and it's English equivalent, the better. If you write out your own flashcards you will encounter it in a kinesthetic/tactile manner; read it out loud and you will hear it and make the sounds with your mouth; look at it and see the shape of the words and patterns of letters, etc.

      3. Creating “hooks.” There are many ways to create mental "hooks" by which you can retain the vocab word: (A) Use silly mnemonics (τύφλος [tuflos] means "blind," and it is hard "to floss" if you are blind). (B) memorize words in groups (words based off the same root; words that mean opposite things; words that refer to the same kind of thing, such as colors, numbers, animals, actions, and various groups of things). (C) Try to mentally associate the concept with the word when memorizing it. The goal is to link the word to the thing or concept itself, rather than simply linking it to the English word. (For example, when memorizing θάλασσα, rather than thinking of the English word "sea," meditate on a mental picture of the sea.)

    2. Flashcard apps. There are numerous good flashcard apps that can be used online, on your desktop or laptop, or even on your phone. For example, Quizlet, Anki, and Memrize all come highly recommended, and many of them will already have cards available for the textbook you are using. Simply search them for your textbook and see what comes up. (Links to flashcard apps can be found under the tab, "Vocabulary and Parsing Helps" above.)

    3. Hand-written flashcards: the three stack method. Here is one method that I have developed for memorizing vocabulary efficiently:

      1. Stack 1 (words to memorize): Every week you will get a new group of vocab words. These will go into the first stack, and you will work on these twice a day. Look at and say each word and its English equivalent 4-7 times before moving on to the next word.

      2. Stack 2 (words to review daily): At the end of the week, many of the words from stack 1 should be easily recognizable. Put these into stack 2, which you will review once daily. For this stack, look at and say each word, and see if you can remember the English equivalent. If so, keep it in stack 2. If not, put it back into stack 1 for re-memorization.

      3. Stack 3 (words to review weekly): At the end of the week, words that have been in stack 2 for a week should be very easy to remember. Put these into stack 3, which you will review once weekly. For this stack, look at and say each word, and see if you can remember the English equivalent. If so, keep it in stack 3. If not, put it back into stack 1 or 2 for re-memorization and review. After a couple months, this stack should be getting bigger and bigger, while the other two should be staying at a manageable size. At this point you can break this stack up into 5 stacks and review one of them each day of the week.

  4. Memorizing Grammatical Forms. Memorizing grammatical forms can often be more difficult than memorizing vocabulary, but with the use of a couple methods you can overcome this challenge. The following are three methods that I recommend that can be used together to memorize the grammatical forms of Hebrew and Greek:

    1. Make flashcards. Put the entire paradigm on one flashcard so that you can see it all at a glance. Pronounce all the forms in order, and then the name of the paradigm. This can be adapted to the three-stack method above so that you are working on the new paradigms the most, but still reviewing the old ones. However, keep the paradigms separate from the vocab.

    2. Compare and contrast. Lay out all of the paradigms and compare and contrast nouns to nouns, and verbs to verbs. Note similarities and differences between the various forms, especially noting where forms are unique and where forms can be used for several meanings. You may want to mark up your cards or make notes on them.

    3. Quiz yourself. Attempt to write out the paradigms from memory. Then, check your work against the textbook and correct any that you got wrong. Repeat. 

Doing Translation Exercises

Doing the translation exercises well can really help cement the learning of the vocab, grammar, and forms. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your translation exercises:

  1. Go slowly! Plan on spending 1-2 hours per week. It can be tempting to try to fly through the translations, but if you spend more time on them, you will retain more ability long-term. Remember that the goal of the translations is not just to complete the assignment, but to train your brain to be able to decode the language. If you are more intentional and explicit about the decoding of the exercises, you will be more likely to retain the ability.

  2. Read each sentence three times: once for pronunciation, once for grammatical information, and once for translation.

    1. Pronunciation. Pronounce the whole sentence. This insures that you will not accidentally skip over any letters by reading it too quickly. It also moves you in the direction of the long-term goal of being able to understand the language on its own terms rather than having to translate it into English mentally.

    2. Information (grammatical analysis, including parsing). Analyze the grammar of the sentence, including parsing all verbs and identifying the case of each noun. I have found it incredibly helpful to mark up the sentence with pencil by double underlining the verbs, single underlining the subject, over-lining the object, and putting prepositional phrases in parentheses. Draw an arrow from genitives (Greek) or constructs (Hebrew) to the words they modify, and put a double backslash between clauses. (You can develop your own method, and need not do it exactly as I have described). It is very important to analyze the sentence grammatically because the grammatical information contains the instructions for putting the meaning of the sentence together. Sometimes students will skip this step because early on in their language studies they will be able to recognize the vocabulary and guess how the words go together. However, this should be avoided as it will handicap the student's ability to understand the sentences when the work becomes a little more complicated.

    3. Translation. Only after the sentence has been pronounced and studied for grammatical information should it be translated. The student should work to understand how the sentence as a whole "works" in the original language before attempting to rendering it into English.