Heart & Mind

It's Hebrew to Me

Bethel Seminary pioneers new ways to teach an ancient language.

Volume 22 No 2 | Spring 2009

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Call it Hebrew by Immersion

When Bethel seminarians study biblical Hebrew under Associate Professor of Old Testament Peter Vogt, Ph.D., they not only read in Hebrew, but they also write and converse in Hebrew.

They learn grammar in the context of active communication, and vocabulary in the context of story. In a departure from traditional grammar and text-translation methods of Hebrew instruction, they learn the language of the Old Testament by means of “Communicative Language Teaching” (CLT).

Hand-picked to participate in a CLT workshop – the Cohelet Project – Bethel is one of only seven seminaries in the world breaking ground with this innovative new approach to ancient language acquisition. And Vogt’s personal experiences make him an enthusiastic participant. Having studied German at nine years of age in a special elementary school program, and then again during his junior year of high school as a foreign exchange student steeped in German culture, he recognizes the value of the immersion experience in language acquisition. “I am convinced that modern language acquisition methods help bring biblical Hebrew students to levels of competence and love for the language never achieved with the standard approaches I used to employ,” Vogt says. “It’s a long, tough slog to get the language down using more traditional grammar/translation methods of teaching.”

Cohelet Project field testing supports Vogt’s observations, demonstrating that students:

  • comprehend meaning without having to decode words and phrases piece by piece;
  • observe themes and nuances of a text more rapidly and more broadly;
  • enjoy greater motivation for learning Hebrew; and
  • gain higher levels of Hebrew language retention.

“Communicative language learning rules, man!” exclaims one student. “It’s a much more engaging method of study than repetition and having stilted sentences to translate. The fluidity works.”

What is the Cohelet Project?

The Cohelet (Communicative Hebrew Learning and Teaching) Project is a three-year workshop exploring modern methods of teaching ancient Hebrew based on proven principles of second language acquisition. Funded by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion in Crawfordsville, Ind., the project is partnering with Bethel and other selected seminaries to pilot this revolutionary approach to teaching the language of the Old Testament. So successful has the experiment been that students are “advertising the Hebrew course to their classmates,” says one participating professor, and “asking for it in Greek,” says another.

Indeed, Greek instructor Jeannine Brown, Ph.D., associate professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary, is eager to incorporate pictorial and auditory methods from the CLT model in her Greek classes this fall. “The Cohelet Project is shaping the way I teach and test,” Brown says. “I want my students to understand that biblical Greek is not a code to break; rather, it is about an author trying to communicate to an audience in the Greek language.”

The Student Experience

In a word, learning Hebrew at Bethel is just plain “fun.” Walk into Vogt’s classroom and you might find students counting off by five in Hebrew as they divide into groups to solve Hebrew crossword puzzles. Or two teams vying for the win in an all-Hebrew version of “Family Feud” (transliteration: milhamote mishpehote, more correctly translated as “Wars of Families”). Or pairs of students drilling each other with Hebrew flash cards, learning to associate Hebrew words directly with images or ideas rather than with an English word first and then an image.

“The benefit is that you remove a set of filters so that students more readily understand what the author is trying to communicate,” Vogt testifies. “As a result, students gain more independence.”

For Vogt, that’s the bottom line: that students would more readily understand what the biblical author is trying to communicate. “Knowledge of Hebrew is essential to becoming the most competent and independent interpreter of Old Testament text you can be,” he asserts.

And the students are more-than-willing learners. “This is how human beings learn language,” one seminarian observes. “Speaking, listening, writing, and reading are all foundational. I simply love it!”

Who knows – perhaps one day Vogt’s students will even be dreaming in Hebrew.