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Review of Basics of Biblical Hebrew: Video Lectures

February 23, 2013
BBH DVD

Miles Van Pelt keeps turning out the hits. Through Zondervan he has published resources that fill a gap in original language learning in biblical studies. I’ve reviewed (with approval) his Biblical Hebrew: A Compact Guide, his Basics of Biblical Aramaic, and have been grateful in my Göttingen Septuagint primer to link to a short two-page abbreviations sheet he produced for that critical edition of the Septuagint.

This fall Zondervan released Basics of Biblical Hebrew: Video Lectures.

The DVDs work “chapter by chapter, section by section” through Pratico and Van Pelt’s Basics of Biblical Hebrew grammar textbook. The videos are “the basic content in lecture form for the grammar.” Here’s how Van Pelt recommends using the DVDs:

  1. Read the chapter of Basics for Biblical Hebrew “for simple content overview.”
  2. Watch the lectures.
  3. Go back to the printed chapter and memorize the relevant information (vocabulary, paradigms, charts, grammar).
  4. Complete the workbook exercises.
  5. Check your answers.

Each DVD chapter corresponds to a chapter in the textbook. The DVDs come with a pdf file that includes summary charts. Throughout the lectures Van Pelt refers to these charts and the screen moves to them as he is speaking.

There is nothing particularly novel or revolutionary in the videos that is not already covered to some degree in the textbook. But especially for a student who is making her or his way through the book alone, the video lectures serve to reinforce the material in a new medium. Even a student taking a course with a live lecturer could benefit from watching these alongside the class.

Van Pelt is a solid lecturer. If not overly exciting, he communicates concepts clearly. For just about anyone making their way through the grammar, it will be easy to follow these lectures.

He offers good study tips in the introduction, and continues to encourage learners throughout the 36 lectures. My favorite tip: “Begin reading your Hebrew Bible as soon as possible,” and, “Take that Bible with you everywhere.” I remember that often in my first year of Hebrew (I used the Van Pelt and Pratico text), I wanted to just be able to read the Hebrew Bible. There are examples throughout the grammar from the Bible, but learning charts and paradigms first can be tedious. This is perhaps a necessary tedium.

Or is it? Some people disagree that paradigm memorization outside the context of a text or conversation is ideal pedagogy for language learning. (Look at how babies acquire language, after all, the argument goes–by hearing, talking, etc., not by memorizing grammatical rules.) Even dead or ancient languages should be taught as “living languages,” proponents say. So some Hebrew textbooks encourage instead a text-based inductive approach.

Van Pelt at one point in the lectures says, “Languages are meant to be accessed and decoded in your mind,” though “decoding” is something a language learner ought to try to move away from as quickly as possible, as she or he seeks fluency. And an early strong verb paradigm has Van Pelt saying, “You must memorize this paradigm, like a ROBOT!”

Hebrew and other languages have been taught this way for a long time, and some language learners may not mind it. I, for example, find paradigm memorization tedious, but not overly difficult. If I have an end goal firmly in mind–reading the Hebrew Bible–I have motivation to repeatedly go over verb conjugations.

But I don’t think this approach will work for everyone, and the potential viewer of these videos should understand that Van Pelt takes a paradigm-memorizing approach to learning Hebrew, with not much inductive learning or interaction with the biblical text. (I think of my high school Spanish teacher, who would not answer classroom questions asked in English, but would simply say, “¡En Español, por favor!”)

Van Pelt and Pratico’s materials use verbal diagnostics. Paradigm charts show in red what the unique prefixes and suffixes and vowels are for each verbal stem, so that it is not just rote memorization of multiple verbs. The diagnostics are a time-saving feature in this sense. As here:

Diagnostics

For those interested in verbal theory, Van Pelt uses perfect (“completed action”) and imperfect (“incomplete action”) nomenclature to describe verbs.

The lectures are well-produced and alternate between views of charts like the one above, real-time writing (like a dry-erase board), and Van Pelt speaking. The clarity of the lectures is a strong point, as they reinforce the material in the textbook well.

If a student is already assigned the Pratico and Van Pelt text, he or she should seriously consider using the lectures as an additional study aid, if one is needed. If a student or professor has a choice as to which text to use for learning Hebrew, though, it is worth considering (either in addition or instead) other “living language”/inductive approaches. Randall Buth’s Living Biblical Hebrew or John H. Dobson’s Learn Biblical Hebrew are two possible texts.

Chapter 1 of the lectures is here, if you want to get a flavor of the lectures (it’s just over an hour):

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy. You can find the Basics of Biblical Hebrew Video Lectures here at Amazon. The Zondervan product page is here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2013 12:28 pm

    Although people do have different preferences for learning, first language acquisition, especially for adults, is not the same as second language learning. So, comparisons to how babies learn to talk are not valid. Even so, what is needed for learning biblical Hebrew is hours of reading, reading, reading, and more reading. Yet, because it’s not being used as a living language all day every day, it is possible to acquire inductively an incorrect “grammar,” and for that reason, the hours of reading need to be accompanied by studying the grammar of the language, too (which is not necessarily the same as memorizing grammar paradigms). It might be possible to learn a language inductively by reading if one read many different books over time, which can provide a basis for fine tuning the grammar. But re-reading a single book, the Bible, cannot give the many nuances of different grammatical constructions found across myriads of contexts, thus hindering a completely inductive approach to learning biblical Hebrew.

    • February 24, 2013 1:34 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Charles. I didn’t really weigh in here about my own views about language acquisition, but I am with you that ideally multiple approaches would be taken.

  2. May 16, 2013 8:42 am

    Charles’ comment is valuable.

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