10 Tips for Surviving a Biblical Language

It is the fall, and students are starting into a new school year. I find myself in an unusual position of being a teaching assistant for an online class. Unfortunately for me, it is a Hebrew class. I can handle it, but it was never my best subject. I was better in Greek, but neither language came easily for me. This got me thinking about how I survived and did well in a year of each language. Here are my 10 tips for surviving a biblical language. I hope they are helpful.

  1. Give it the time it needs. Greek came more naturally for me but I had a more demanding teacher. Hebrew was a less demanding pace, but it came to me a little slower. I wish I could have set how much time the language was going to take, but in the end each language and each part of the language has its own demands. You have to give the work the time that it demands. This can be hard if you are a part-time student or have a lot going on in your life, but there is no way around it.Hebrew_Alphabet
  2. Do a little every day. This is the follow up to #1. You can try to jam the languages into your life where they are convenient, but you will do better to do a little every day.
  3. Nail down your letters and vowels. This is basic stuff so you think it is no big deal. WRONG. You have to nail down your letters, how some letters change shape or sound, and for heaven’s sake get your vowels right. I did not pay enough attention to Hebrew vowel pointing at first and had to go back and really nail it down.
  4. Nail your vocab words. This is simply a must. Live with your flashcards and have them so you can recognize them immediately. Even if you can’t get the right tense or part of the sentence, if you can get the word then you can normally get at least partial credit. Sometimes you can even guess the other parts if you have the right word. You can download flashcard apps on your phone or make cards, but the important thing is to review them like crazy. Perhaps no other cards in your pile are as important as the prepositions. Drill these like crazy. Make a chart of them on your desk for constant use when you translate.
  5. Drill your parsing. Parsing involves describing the noun or verb based on how they are written in the sentence. You will do this a lot, so drill your basic tenses like crazy. I made them into flash cards so that I would see the tense and rattle off the word in its different forms.
  6. Learn to pronounce the words. I did not understand why this was important at first, but I later found that some of the vocal patterns helped me identify the words. Some of the flash card apps even have audio files with them to help with the pronunciation. Plus, if you become a pastor, you can impress people with how smart you are.
  7. Don’t let your early stuff slip. One of the problems with the languages is that, as you go, you learn more tenses, more vocabulary, and more exceptions to the rules. You have to continue to drill the foundational work you do at the beginning of the year. There is nothing worse than missing a word on a test that was from an early lesson. Keep drilling the early words a few times a week even after you think you have mastered them.Greek_Alphabet
  8. Do the homework without the answers first. This only applies if you have the answers, but often books have answers in the back or have answer books. If so, do not do your homework with the answers out or do your translations with the English Bible out. It is too easy to think of the answer and check it before you commit to it and write it down. Do your homework, then correct it. This also adds the extra step of going over the work again in order to correct it.
  9. Keep your English straight. I was amazed when I learned Greek and Hebrew how much I learned about English. I did not know what an infinitive was, what case was, or how important it was for words to agree in a sentence. Paying attention to the English will really help your translation.
  10. Ask for help. I saw several classmates over the years I took biblical languages that would fall behind but wouldn’t say anything or get help. Teacher are normally willing to help you, and there are often teaching assistants who can help tutor you. Now, I also saw students who asked for help when they simply weren’t putting in the time that the language required. That is not good. A teacher can’t help you if you are not doing the work. I guarantee you that you are going to have something in your studies that does not make sense or click with you. Ask for help when those things come up.

One last suggestion: Keep up your languages after you are done with seminary. I wish I had read a little every day or every week to really keep my skill sharpened. I would look up key words every once in a while, or read about a troubling parsing dilemma in the text, but I did not do enough. I am picking it back up now, but it would have been easier to just keep it in the first place.


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