Friday, July 03, 2009

On Language Learning

One of the myriad Biblical studies blogs I read posted a link to a post on yet another blog, here, where Dr. Mark McGinniss comments on the link between admiring the Biblical languages and willingness to endure the difficulties of learning them. I absolutely agree: if you admire the Biblical languages, you will be willing to put forth the effort of learning to read them.

I think there's more that may be said, though. I've been party to (or observer of) a number of conversations at Asbury, both in person and on the school's internet discussion forum, on the necessity of language study, particularly for those entering into congregational ministry. There are a whole range of (very excellent) arguments given as to why the clergy ought to have good working knowledge of the Biblical languages (and, to be honest, I'm fighting the temptation to jump off-topic in that direction).

There are also a number of arguments on the other side. Asbury only requires 2-3 semesters (combined) of Greek and Hebrew for an M.Div. There are many who think that is plenty, and many who think it's too much (I happen to think it quite inadequate, but I digress). The most common arguments usually center on two points: 1)Learning these languages is difficult and time consuming. 2)Does a pastor really need to do the legwork of reading the Greek/Hebrew him-(or her)-self when there are so many resources - commentaries and dictionaries and whatnot - that have already covered the same ground?

My view, for what it's worth, is that these two objections are linked. The perceived difficulty of learning the Biblical languages is inversely proportional to the perceived need to learn them. Or, to put it another way, the more sure you are that you need to be able to read Greek and Hebrew to understand Scripture, the easier (though still not "easy") you will find it to learn to read Greek and Hebrew. Conversely, the less persuaded you are that you need to learn the languages, the more difficult and onerous the task will seem.

This really goes for learning any language, not just Biblical Greek and Hebrew. That, I suspect, is part of the reason immersion is the best method of language learning: entering an environment where you cannot communicate with the people around you creates - or should create - an intense perceived need to learn their language. Another example: I taught myself to read French this past January. It's a lovely language, and I'd had the books I used to learn it for several months, but did not start learning it until very early January. Why? Because my Ph.D. program required that I pass a competency exam in French, which was scheduled for February 1. The need to learn a language facilitates the task of learning that language. (For those curious, I did pass the exam, and developed quite a fondness for French along the way.)

All that being so, then, a seminary student who does not think that learning the Biblical languages is particularly necessary to his or her career in the pastorate will find it harder to learn the languages than someone who (like myself) regards it as crucial. So, to Dr. McGinniss's excellent observation - "If you admire the use of Hebrew (or Greek), you will weather the frustration" - I would add the following: if you feel that the use and knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is important or valuable, you will find the frustrations easier to weather.

1 comment:

John Bugay said...

Hi Shaylin -- I found this posting on your facebook/twitter feed. Not sure if I mentioned it, but I found a guy who is teaching me NT Greek. (He is a former lifelong instructor and biblical scholar -- Harrison Harnen -- he knew Bruce Metzger and Raymond Brown personally) -- it's been slowed down a bit since I was let go; I just don't have the discipline and structure in my day to make something like this a regular part of it. But I'm hoping to continue it.