10 Tips for Learning the Biblical Languages

I recently shared “10 Reasons I’m Glad Hebrew and Greek Were Required in Seminary.”  I want to encourage the study of the original languages, and there are more tools than ever to help in this noble endeavor!  Here are the top ten things that helped me renew and persevere in the languages and complete first year Hebrew and Greek this past year.

1. Ask the Lord for help to appreciate and use the languages. The importance of a student’s attitude cannot be overstated. If you hate what you’re doing, if you think it’s unnecessary, and if you are just jumping through a hoop for a degree requirement, you are going to be miserable. On the other hand, if you’re excited and grateful to learn the original languages of the Bible, you may just have one of the most enjoyable parts of your training just around the corner. Yes, studying Hebrew and Greek takes a lot of sweat, but yes, it’s worth it, and it should be integrated with a heart of worship to God and service to those who will benefit from your teaching and ministry.

2. Take the languages for a test drive.  I recommend going immediately to the Daily Dose site for the language you’re looking to start.  Click on “Learn” at www.dailydoseofhebrew.com or www.dailydoseofgreek.com to watch the free grammar lessons.  (You can also open them on their Vimeo pages and download them for offline use.)  Futato and Plummer are master teachers (and authors) and they communicate in a clear, enjoyable, and memorable style.

In addition to Daily Dose, there are other sites with free courses.  I found it helpful to work through material on sites for these before taking a for-credit course, and it only made my learning easier in the long run. Some other free courses worth a look are: Chris Engelsma’s Hebrew and Greek classes, Dr. Barrick’s Hebrew classes, Dr. Murray’s Hebrew class,  Charles Grebe’s Hebrew class, Dr. Mounce’s Greek class.

Zondervan also sells online, independent Hebrew and Greek courses (each are two-part courses, $199 for each part, and 1 year of access to lessons).

Test-driving the languages may help some students find out if they will be able to sink or swim, but, for many, I think it will help them find that it is possible to learn Hebrew and Greek, and that they can gain a good foundation for future learning in the process.

3. Learn your alphabet. Seriously. Snails are going to outrun you if you don’t make the alphabet your best friend. For many of us, learning the languages is like being in kindergarten again, and it’s fun.  So learn an alphabet song. Sing it every day, multiple times a day, until you know it.  I’ve found that both alphabets can be sung to the tune of “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortening Bread” (Thanks, Dr. Mounce).  The Greek letters go straight through, while I tag “that’s the Hebrew ALEPH-BETH” onto the Hebrew version. When you start using a lexicon, you’ll be glad you took this advice.

4. Figure out your game plan.  If you’re studying the languages on your own, you’ve got maximum flexibility, but for those taking them at accredited colleges or seminaries, you’ll need to either take them at your school or take them from another school which will be accepted for transfer credit. You can always check with your registrar. I obtained approval to take and transfer six hours of Greek from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (they even have a 30-day free trial period) and this enabled me to take the classes in a summer and graduate sooner.

You need to consider the approach the class will use to help you learn the language. Depending on your long-term goals, you may want to investigate whether the class will give you a working knowledge of the language or whether it will be designed to prepare you for in-depth scholarly mastery of it. You may want the latter if you plan to continue with advanced courses in the languages, and the former if you only desire an introduction. I had one of each and one nearly drove me to give up on the languages. Ask around: talk to fellow students who have had a given professor, talk to professors, and get an idea of what you’re getting into before you sign up.

You also need to think about the delivery format and timeframe. Some students really need face to face instruction and the encouragement of classmates. Independent learners may do fine with an online class. Some online classes allow generous completion times. Some have strict deadlines and others are generally self-paced. If you go for the latter, don’t be a procrastinator. Set a schedule and try to stick to it. Carve out some time and dig in!

5. Brush up on your English grammar (or whatever your native language is or the language your teacher will use to instruct). Check out Chris Engelsma’s free course, and use books like English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew (AmazonWTS) and English Grammar to Ace New Testament Greek (AmazonWTS) to make connections that will help you understand the grammatical concepts in the languages you’re learning.

If you don’t have a decent grasp of English grammar, you’re going to struggle. Plus, you may have to diagram sentences again (Warriner’s 5th course on English Grammar will help). Time spent shoring up your skills in these areas will reap dividends.

6. Get familiar with your syllabus and textbook ASAP. This should go without saying, but when you get the information about how your professor will teach your class, start planning around it. Mark all your deadlines, note what will be required for assignments and assessments, and obtain your textbook(s). If you have multiple professors teaching a language at your school, you might procure a syllabus from each to compare (their textbook choices and teaching strategies or other factors might make one a better choice than another). My classes used Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek (Amazon – WTS) and Morphology of Biblical Greek (Amazon), Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Amazon – WTS), and Futato’s Beginning Biblical Hebrew (AmazonLogos Bible Software – WTS).

The syllabus may also give you a heads up on the proper use of the text. Some professors will extensively utilize the books, while others will basically make them a heavily-used reference work.

7. Memorize early and often. Procrastination and laziness are your enemies, and they will swiftly kill your ability to learn a language in a given time frame. Pay close attention when your memory work is assigned. Not all professors will mandate the same requirements, but every language class will have some memory work. Expect vocabulary, noun declensions, verb conjugations, and definite article patterns. Get familiar with your memory assignments quickly and review daily. Like the alphabet, you’ll be glad you spent time memorizing when you get an assignment and realize you are actually reading a sentence and can translate it without having to refer to your books. It amazed me how much mileage I got out of memorizing the patterns for the Hebrew perfect and imperfect!

8. Pack a toolbox with flashcards, mnemonics, and software. For vocabulary, flashcards help many people. Whether you make your own, order pre-made flash cards, such as Zondervan’s Hebrew and Greek (Amazon – WTS) sets, or use the free Quizlet app, to make your memory work efficient and enjoyable! I personally found Quizlet to be the best option because I could sync it across devices, enabling me to study on a mobile device (even offline) or the computer (online), and it has built-in games and tests. I took these before taking the real quizzes and it helped me greatly. One word of caution here: if you make your own flashcards or use Quizlet to find sets other users have made, doublecheck every entry to make sure it’s correct (user error happens).

Along with flashcards, finding, creating, and using mnemonic devices such as rhymes and word associations will help you learn and remember new words. Dr. David Murray’s free Hebrew flashcard PDFs and Blair Kasfeldt’s Biblical Greek: Vocabulary Made Easy ($3.99) are two great examples.

You’ll need to master certain noun declensions and verb conjugations.  Memorize the charts or patterns your professor requires and repeat them regularly. One helpful way to solidify this is to use Paradigms Master Pro (for Windows and Mac computers). It’s a well-done, inexpensive program (their Twitter page occasionally announces sales on it as well). The best deal is to buy Hebrew and Greek together unless you have a mastery of one already or are sure you will only be learning one.  There is a free trial so you can see if it’s something that you want.

9. Get a good basic lexicon. You probably won’t learn every word you need to translate, and if you want to keep going in the languages after you finish the classes, you’re going to need a dictionary. Your professor might have a required or suggested one. If not, consider Holladay’s Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon and Gingrich’s Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. (HALOT and BDAG are probably overkill for most first year students, but should be on the radar for those wishing to continue and deepen.) I also got Louw & Nida, Greek-English Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains (AmazonLogos) electronically and found it helpful on the go. There are other choices for lexicons, especially some free older ones that are a bit dated, but what I’ve suggested should be sufficiently up to date options if you need to buy one.

10. Get an analytical lexicon but try not to use it too much. This is a controversial suggestion. Some believe it is the worst possible idea for a beginning student to use an analytical lexicon. The danger is that one can look up every single word and skip fundamentals such as the memorization of basic paradigms, irregular forms, and rules for vowel lengthening, which would be self-defeating when trying to learn a language. However, I found an analytical lexicon handy for certain translation assignments and for occasionally checking my work. If you get one of these, it is best to 1) make sure your professor allows its use, and 2) use it as a last resort. Try to figure out the word using what you already know (or after reviewing what you already should know) and then look at it if you’re stumped. If you’re not disciplined enough to do refrain from using it when you shouldn’t, then don’t buy it. I used Mounce’s Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Amazon – WTS). I’ve not used one for Hebrew/Aramaic, but Davidson’s has good reviews.

For some, utilizing the interlinear, text analysis, and lexicon tools on sites like Biblehub.comBlue Letter Bible, and gntreader.com may render owning an analytical lexicon unnecessary.

What Do You Suggest?

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ve found some helpful suggestions. Take what you can use, and use it to grow in your knowledge of God’s Word. I’d be glad to hear suggestions from others, and possibly edit this article in light of them. What would you recommend for those who wish to prepare for and profit from Hebrew and Greek?

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