As a Biblical Hebrew teacher, I have heard many reasons why people don’t study languages—or at least do not do so with excellence. Top of the list: I’m no good with languages! This reason betrays several assumptions. These assumptions, however, fall flat when met with substantive reflection.
(1) Language Gene – Students tend to think there are certain gifted individuals who can simply pick up a language quickly with little effort. When students find that they are not mastering Biblical Hebrew quickly, they throw up their hands and confess, “I just don’t have what it takes to learn languages.” Once they reach this conclusion, students simply stop. Sure, they still show up for class, but they stop trying.
So is it true? Is there a language gene possessed only by an elite group of people? In short, NO! The idea of a language gene flies in the face neurological study and common sense. Our intelligence is by no means fixed in such a way that we cannot improve cognitive functions, such as our memory. Furthermore, it is quite plain that language and being human just go together. Language is what we do.
(2) Difficulty = Stupidity – When students hit a rough patch in language learning, they can start to equate their difficulty with their (supposed) lack of intelligence. The problem here lies with the expectations students have for learning a language like Biblical Hebrew. Language learning takes time. For example, most students have forgotten basic grammar and syntax by the time they land in a Hebrew class. Thus, a professor has to teach the fundamentals of language and the actual language of Hebrew; that’s a tall order. Students become frustrated when, after one month, they do not feel comfortable with the language. They think there is something wrong with them.
When difficulty comes—and it certainly will—students should not let up. That is key. Students must become comfortable with the fact that learning a language is uncomfortable. Students are shaky with vocabulary at first. They are timid with translations. They cannot see how the system of the language fits together. But that is okay! With a proper teacher, a calm, dedicated student will learn more than he or she could ever dream. But the student must push through the difficulty.
(3) Effort is Evil – While students might be inclined to equate difficulty with stupidity, there is also the temptation to think that effort is criminal. Some students envision a week full of social media, Netflix, and SportsCenter with occasional moments of study. Reading, translating, and practicing a language should not constrain a student’s social life, should it? Can’t a student have it all? A life full of media entertainment, church ministry, and academic study should all go together, right? Well, if they do not all go together, then certainly academic training must go, especially if it takes substantial effort, right? Unfortunately, some students would answer in the affirmative. But is effort wrong? Of course not! More important, effort to study languages should limit one’s media exposure, not the other way around. Now let me be clear: Media, be it social or watching football, is by no means wrong. Entertainment, however, is not a right. It is a luxury that we should appreciate and enjoy in moderation. What’s more, we must not push off effort as if it were immoral. We must embrace it.
The riches of learning a language are many. The vivid nuances of Biblical Hebrew, for example, are often dulled by English translation. Beyond content, learning Hebrew can also affect our character. Often, studying Hebrew produces perseverance and discipline—characteristics that this world sorely needs from Christians. Learning Hebrew demands humility as well. No matter the natural intelligence of a student, each man and woman enters Hebrew I with virtually no understanding of the alphabet, vocabulary, syntax, or verbal system of that ancient language. A student might begin the course with arrogance, but over an entire semester, arrogance gives way to humility.
The ability to read the Hebrew Bible is not reserved for the elite. It requires no language gene. It does, however, necessitate effort. For those of us who have the privilege to study Biblical Hebrew, let us not squander our time. Rather, let us give ourselves to the discipline of learning!