The question was a near-refrain in my first semester of Hebrew class at seminary. After months of memorizing verbal paradigm charts and individual vocabulary words, I wondered he same thing.
I don’t mind a memorization-based or paradigm-based model for second language acquisition. I did fairly well in first learning Hebrew from the Pratico and Van Pelt Basics of Biblical Hebrew (see here and here).
But as I noted in my Pratico/Van Pelt reviews:
Some people disagree that paradigm memorization outside the context of a text or conversation is ideal pedagogy for language learning. … Even dead or ancient languages should be taught as “living languages,” proponents say. So some Hebrew textbooks encourage instead a text-based inductive approach.
Getting to Read Hebrew A.S.A.P.
The First Hebrew Primer (Third Edition, EKS Publishing) takes more of a reading-based inductive approach:
The goal of the Primer is to teach students to read and understand Biblical Hebrew as quickly as possible; therefore, the lessons emphasize recognition and translation – not memorization.
It succeeds well in this aim. Indeed, as soon as chapter 10 (out of 30), the student will be excited to begin her or his guided reading of Ruth:
Congratulations! You have learned enough Hebrew to begin reading the Bible—revised for your reading level. We have chosen Ruth because it is short, simple, and beautiful. In the beginning, the Hebrew text will be simplified, but as we progress, the text will approach the original. Before we finish the Book of Ruth, you will be reading the actual biblical text.
As soon as the Primer teaches the alphabet, it offers a host of a exercises for out-loud reading practice. The “Tall Tales” (folk tales) readings give students yet another chance to put into a reading context what they have learned. All the expected charts for nouns and verbs, vocabulary lists (with occurrence of 200x or more in the Hebrew Bible), and exercise sets are present throughout the book. But I especially appreciated its emphasis on reading early.
Updates to the Third Edition
What’s different in the Third Edition? Primarily, there is more grammatical detail offered.
This revised third edition introduces several new terms and clarifies grammatical points, but will look the same to long-time Primer readers. The key change we have made is the inclusion of new explanatory endnotes. Many readers have expressed a desire to deepen their knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, but have unanimously endorsed the clear, uncomplicated tone of the Primer. We have responded by adding these optional supplementary notes. Students may read the notes to enrich their understanding of Hebrew grammar or concentrate solely on the main text. Either way, the Primer provides a sound foundation for more advanced studies in the Hebrew Bible.
One gets the feeling that in the absence of those clarifying notes, some of the grammatical concepts are oversimplified. So the additional nuances expressed in the endnotes are imperative for laying a good foundation for later Hebrew learning. EKS Publishing uses its own name for some grammatical terms (“Word Pair” instead of “construct chain” and “regular infinitive” instead of “infinitive construct”).
I can see this being something a student would need to re-learn if she or her goes further in learning Hebrew grammar; I’m not sure the level of simplification here is always helpful or necessary. (And the lack of an index makes it difficult to trace discussion throughout the book of a given concept.) All the same, page 368 provides a “Guide to Grammatical Terms” with a table of “Our Name” and the “Traditional Name” for key concepts.
The Primer for Kids?
Though the book is for “adult beginners,” my six-year-old son, whose Hebrew-learning adventures I have chronicled here, took an interest in The First Hebrew Primer once he saw it on the shelf. Chapter 3 (“The Sheva, Odd Vowels, and the Dagesh”) was particularly helpful, as the sheva had been giving him trouble. The Primer explains how to pronounce the sheva depending on where in a word it is:
- Sheva at the beginning of a word: “always pronounced with a short, slurred sound”
- Sheva at the end of a word: “always a silent vowel, and it is not pronounced at all”
- Sheva in the middle of a word: “When a sheva appears alone in the middle of a word, it usually falls at the end of a syllable and is not pronounced.” (An endnote at this point offers additional illuminating detail.)
My son did astutely ask, “How do I correct myself if I get something wrong?” So I’ve gone through the Primer with him, rather than letting him use the Primer much on his own (even though he can read just fine). There is a companion audio CD available, which has to be purchased separately; self-guided learners will need it to be able to take full advantage of the oral exercises in the Primer.
The Hebrew font in The First Hebrew Primer is clear and easy to read. The exercises strike a nice balance between appropriateness for each lesson and being challenging. For example, in chapter 7 (“The Perfect Tense”), there is this:
If you prefer an interactive, digital edition, Accordance Bible Software has a Primer package available for purchase here. The Accordance edition includes the primer, the answer key (otherwise a separate purchase), and more than an hour’s worth of accompanying audio. In other words, Accordance puts everything needed in one integrated and easy-to-use place.
Would I use The First Hebrew Primer as a textbook for a first-year Hebrew student? Definitely–despite the occasional lack of nuance in the grammatical explanations, its emphasis on oral practice, its engaging exercises, its inclusions of basic paradigms, and especially its introduction of reading early on make it a solid option for a first-year Hebrew text. As an added bonus, there are plenty of English to Hebrew exercises (and even an English-Hebrew Glossary), which will go a long way to help the student solidify Hebrew comprehension.
Thanks to EKS Publishing for the review copy of the Primer and answer key, offered for the purposes of this review, but with no expectation as to my review’s content. The publisher’s book page is here (answer key here). It’s also on Amazon (affiliate link) here (answer key here).