Dharma Students Make Learning Ancient Languages Fun

No scholar of the Bible or the ancient world should miss taking a closer look at the blackboard that Jack was erasing in a Dharma Initiative classroom in the most recent episode of LOST. If you haven’t seen it yet, it isn’t too late to avert your gaze, and most people will probably need to click through to the full-sized image in order to read it anyway. But more about language-learning follows below the image, so please do scroll down!

I’d actually been meaning for several days to post on the subject of why I’ve tended to find Semitic languages daunting. I generally love languages, and yet every time I’d try to make some progress with Syriac or Arabic, I’d find it a struggle. It took me a long time to figure out why, and I think it was due to a combination of factors, and figuring out the reasons – as well as the availability of new language-learning resources – has certainly helped with making better progress in recent months.

One issue connects up with my current research interest in oral tradition and memory in early Christianity. Memories need to be organized if we want to be able to recall them at will, and we reuse those organizing “cubbyholes” (or topoi) over and over again. For those used to learning modern languages, it is incredibly frustrating to open a Greek textbook and find that the usual order of nominative, accusative, genitive and dative is not used. Fortunately when I learned Greek, the textbook used ordered the cases in the more usual way it is done today. Otherwise, you don’t only have to learn the case endings, you have to create a whole new mental framework when you organize the material: you see it on the page, but you cannot slot what you see into the existing cubbyholes without moving them around, and that is a hurdle to remembering. In the case of the Semitic languages, for perfectly legitimate and logical reasons, verb forms are organized beginning with the third person singular and working from there. Since the usual order when learning other languages is to begin with the first person singular, the same problem arises. And so, while it is important to emphasize that the most basic form is the third person singular, simply reversing the order of listing would allow new vocabulary to be slotted to a greater extent into already-existing pigeonholes, rather than having to build new ones.

The fact that vowels are often lacking is another challenge. Perhaps one day those interested in learning Syriac and Aramaic will be able to begin by learning Mandaic, the script of which includes vowels. Until then, having the vowels included and some sort of transliteration to assist one can be invaluable. Of course, we all know that, when a transliteration is provided, students will tend to rely on that, but I’d argue that at the very beginning that is OK. As children we learn to write a language that we already know how to speak and it is much easier. To try to learn a language with only consonants to go on in a textbook is making the process unnecessarily challenging, since once again it diverts from the natural way in which we learned our native tongue, not to mention the ways we may have learned other languages.

It is somewhat ironic that learning Mandarin Chinese might seem less daunting to an English speaker than most Semitic languages, even though Mandarin is tonal. Because the Chinese writing system is not alphabetic, there is no way to make a textbook that does not use English characters (Pinyin) to indicate the pronunciation. To make a language harder to learn simply because it has an alphabet doesn’t make much sense.

Being able to hear the language also helps, and many textbooks provide an audio CD to accompany it. Indeed, there are now entirely-audio courses that one can use, whether to help with vocabulary, or in the case of living languages actually learn the basics orally before trying to cope with writing. Again, what makes a language like Hungarian seem less daunting than one like Tamil for a native English speaker trying to learn is not the sounds or the structure or the dissimilarity to English, but the fact that one is written in the same alphabet (with some accents thrown in) while the other is written in a challenging script. Finding some way of making it possible to learn the basics of the language before wrestling with a new script is a no-brainer. And in the case of Hebrew, the modern language is enough like the ancient form (having been revived in the modern era based on ancient Hebrew, rather than continuously evolving over the centuries like Arabic or Greek) that one can find learning the modern language helpful for getting to grips with Biblical Hebrew. So I second Anumma’s recommendation to do modern Hebrew first, and highly recommend the Pimsleur language courses (the second level of Hebrew and of Eastern Arabic were recently released, with the third and final on the way). Just pop them in to listen to in the car during your commute. You’ll be amazed.

The sign in the Dharma Initiative classroom says that they make learning fun, and that has certainly been shown to be an aid to learning. I started learning a bit of Coptic a while back, but put it on hold because there are other languages that are more pressing. Be that as it may, I think that if we were able to learn an ancient language on an island with mysterious and seemingly miraculous properties, and believed that ancient language was a key to solving those mysteries, we’d learn much faster. I wonder what would happen if a hieroglyphics tutorial were merged with a LOST video game, so that you had to correctly recognize and remember (before a timer runs out) what symbols mean in order to make it through the game. Would students learn better/faster – at least if they were LOST fans?
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  • http://anumma.com/ anumma.com

    Sooner or later, I’m going to have to order Season One of LOST as a boxed set from NetFlix and get started, aren’t I? :^)But if it means that eventually I’ll have a reason to shake the dust off of my hard-learned Egyptian, then maybe I can justify it as a tax write-off! In any case, I’ll want to re-learn it your way.Brooke

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Your local public library might have LOST – you could check when you look for your next Pimsleur installment. :)If you were to blog about the Egyptian connections in LOST, you’d certainly attract readers to your blog. You could probably even get a book out of it, although not one that would count as a scholarly publication…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14247799389009268470 James Pate

    I hear you! That’s why I struggle with rabbinic and medieval Hebrew. All consonants. The fact that a word can mean so many different things. And professors wonder why I need the help of a translation to translate those passages?