The Trouble with Textbooks

As I continue with my language studies, I have bit of an on-going battle with the textbooks. I realise that this is my problem, rather than the authors’ and is mainly due to my rather poor formal-English education. I was educated in an age when English lessons were about expression and creativity, with not much grammar mentioned. This wasn’t necessarily wrong–I now write novels, and the marketplace is overwhelmed by people my age who are putting that creativity into action. But when it comes to learning a language, it is fairly useless.

My latest novel

My problem is understanding what exactly the textbook is trying to say (the English bits). For example, I am faced with a chapter that begins:

Pronominal suffixes attached to nouns function as genitives, much like absolute nouns in construct relationships.

Introducing Biblical Hebrew by Allen Ross

I stare at the words. I can read the words. I can say the words. But understand them? Not at first glance. My brain has to unwind the language and remind myself that a ‘pronominal suffix‘ is simply ‘random-people-related letters added to the word’ and a ‘genitive’ is simply the word that owns/possesses the other word, and so on. I can get there, but by the time I have decoded the English, I am ready for a break.

I have also discovered that when faced with sentences I don’t understand, my mind sort of goes into shock, and I absorb absolutely nothing. People need to be relaxed in order to learn, and lots of poncy language makes me stressed.

There are of course, textbooks that are more friendly, but they have their own problems. For our Greek lectures, we use a book by Macnair, and he writes in a very folksy manner, describing verbs as ‘slimming-club verbs’ because they lose letters, for example. This was lovely when I started learning, as the information was very accessible. However, when I came to revise it was a nightmare, as I wanted to skim the chapter on ‘liquid-verbs’ and I couldn’t extract the information from the storybook style of writing.

A selection of textbooks.

I think the only answer is for me to have a selection of textbooks. I do need the very formal one, because the exam is written in formal language, and I am expected to behave like a linguist. But when I am learning new grammar points, when understanding is the main aim, then I need a friendly book. For Hebrew, I have found a book by Dobson, which explains the grammar gradually amidst a jumble of reading and this suits the way I learn. I need to use the language in order to learn it, I find learning grammar in isolation to be almost impossible. The formal textbook by Ross will teach something, and then give lists of words (paradigms) to be learnt, but without saying what the words in the paradigm actually mean. (I have scribbled the meanings next to the lists of symbols–otherwise that is all they are–lists of meaningless symbols.) In contrast, the book by Dobson will give an extract of Hebrew text to read, and then points out a few minor grammar points. The order is jumbled, but the information is easily assimilated.

My other problem at the moment is trying to learn lists of Hebrew words (because unlike the Greek exam, we are not allowed to use a dictionary). My memory is pretty rubbish, so every list of new vocab represents many hours of work: writing, reciting, lists on the fridge, letters on my fingers, chants when we jog. Not sure whether I will get there, but I am determined to give it my best shot.

I hope you have something interesting to work on this week. It seems to me, that the most rewarding things usually require an uncomfortable amount of effort–but it’s worth it.

Thanks for reading. Take care.

Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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Anne E. Thompson

Hebrew in a Nutshell

I have now completed the first half-term of Hebrew. I find that learning a new language tends to go through certain stages.
Stage 1: Everything is new and exciting, I know nothing, so there’s no pressure and I enjoy the ‘differentness’ of the language. This is quickly followed about a week later by a feeling of panic as I start to think I will never understand it, and even making the correct sounds is impossible, never mind understanding anything.

Stage 2: A few things begin to be familiar (with Mandarin and Hebrew, this is simply the letters, with other languages I begin to recognise words). I start learning vocabulary, I have a feel for how the language sounds, I feel I am making progress. All is wonderful.

Stage 3: I begin to realise how little I understand, I seem to forget more than I remember, the number of grammar rules is overwhelming, I feel like the stupidest person on the planet (after all, even tiny children can speak what I am struggling to learn). Continuing at this point is sheer determination.

Stage 4: I start to grasp some of the grammar, I notice I am making tiny steps forward, and I know lots more than when I started. I cling on to the belief that I will improve and delight in being able to recognise the occasional word or phrase, and I feel as if I actually understand something of the language whilst also recognising that there is a mountain of grammar rules waiting to be learnt.

Stage 5: I have full understanding of the grammar rules, can read and speak fluently, I have arrived. (I have never actually reached stage 5 in any language so am guessing! There might be more stages between 4 and 5, ask a linguist.)

I am currently between stages 2 and 3 with Hebrew. Here is an overview of what I have learnt so far (potentially with mistakes because I am new at this).

Hebrew is read from right to left:

.siht ekil kool dluow hsilgnE  ni ecnetnes a oS

All the letters are consonants. So “Hello!” would look like: “LLH.” The verbs are written underneath the letter they follow:

o  e

Hebrew has its own alphabet, so the letters actually look like this:


All the words seem to be three letters long, with extra letters added to the front and back to confuse foreigners/add meaning. For example, in English we would write: He wanted to… but in Hebrew they would add letters to mean ‘he’ and ‘to’ onto the root of the other words. To make it more interesting/confusing, I think they sometimes remove letters from the root word as well. The letters that are added seem to change depending on the mood of the author, but I suspect there are further rules that we will learn at some point.

At the moment, my brain approaches Hebrew like a code to be deciphered rather than a language. This causes problems, as although I have learnt certain individual words, I don’t always recognise them in a text, because they are not yet ‘words’ for me, they are symbols which when I see them in isolation, I can give the correct translation to. To try and alter this, I decided to try and learn some modern Hebrew along-side the ancient Hebrew—because they are pretty similar at this level. It is sort of working, as for example I know that the words that sound like: “Tov me-odd” mean ‘very good’ and when I decipher the symbols that sound like ‘me-odd’ I can smile and say ‘very.’

To learn modern Hebrew, I bought a few CDs and a DVD for Husband. He enjoyed the Homeland series on Netflix, and it’s based on an Israeli series, so I bought him a copy of the original. It’s always good to share your interests with your spouse. He was less delighted than you might think, but we are dutifully watching it each evening and when I need to translate passages about spies, terrorism and torture in the Bible, I will have a real advantage.

Thanks for reading. Hope you have a good week.

Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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