Tools for Students: Building Vocabulary

As graduate students, especially PhD students, in Biblical Studies one of the most difficult aspects of the program are the multiplicity of foreign languages we have to master (or at least interact with). For students of the New Testament, that almost guarantees Greek (whether Classical, Hellenistic, or Koine) and Latin (whether Classical or Ecclesiastical). Bt you might also have to acquired knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, or other languages. For Hebrew Bible/Tanak studies, this means Hebrew (whether Classical, Rabbinic, Tannitic) and Aramaic, but also likely Greek and various other Semitic languages (such as Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc., etc., etc.,). Then, of course, since you\’re in a PhD program you must also add reading knowledge in French and German. If you, like me, show some crossover between Hebraic and Hellenistic worlds, then—lucky you!–you probably have some unholy combination of the above. Either way, that\’s a lot of language to learn.
Luckily (?) you have years to acquire and master all of these languages, especially your primary ones. For me, the most important language for me to truly master is Hebrew. And, if any of you have taken Hebrew, you know that its syntax is (relatively) simple.* However, all of that simplicity is more than made up for with the enormity of its vocabulary. For such a limited corpus, the vocabulary is staggering. Even the number of Hapax Legomenae are large! But, as one of my language professors intoned to me, “vocabulary is the heart of language.” So, how can you tame such a beast? It is surely not something you will pull out with a hook! (Name that reference!) So, how should you approach it?
First of all, let me say there are many systems for vocabulary acquisition (here\’s a really interesting one using Anki). I\’m not saying mine\’s the best, but I do think it\’s more effective for dead languages with virtually no English overlap and a non-Roman alphabet. This post deals largely with a card-based vocabulary system, but could easily be tailored for other mediums.
I think there are four categories into which all vocabulary—or all words—can be separated. Knowing which category to place which word is vital to mastering the language.
  1. Unseen: Unseen vocabulary are the words you don\’t remember ever seeing in your life. These are “new” words (or words that might as well be!). This is where all words begin.
  2. Disremembered: Disremembered words are those words which you think you know, but just can\’t remember. They\’re the ones that once you flip your vocabulary card or are given the answer you shake your head in shame because you just knew that word and couldn\’t remember! Most of our unseen vocabulary quickly moves into this category.
  3. Remembered: Remembered words are those which we see and can remember or figure out what they mean. We might have to think about it. This is the largest category for our vocabulary retention. Unfortunately, we often think that words in this category are in the next category—which causes all sorts of problems.
  4. Known: Known words are the ones you don\’t even have to think about. You probably don\’t even remember not knowing what they were. These are the words you don\’t have to translate; they are a part of you. One of my Hebrew professors explained this category thus: “You don\’t remember your children\’s names; you know them!” These are words that you would have a harder time forgetting than remembering.
In my not so humble opinion, it is imperative that you correctly place vocab into their appropriate categories so that you can move as many as possible into the last two categories. To quickly add vocabulary, I approach each session in the following manner (each session will likely taking you 30-45 minutes; you can adjust the numbers for smaller sections appropriately):
  1. I move ~30 words from the Unseen to the Disremembered category. This is just to familiarize yourself with the word; it\’s an “introduction.” You\’re not really trying to learn it, just get the feel for it.
  2. I move ~20 words from Disremembered to Remembered. These are my real “vocabulary” learning. You can move them into this category once you\’re able to know the meaning of a word after flipping through your list twice in a row.
  3. I move __ cards from Remembered to Known. This is the trickiest part, because once you label a card as “known” it\’s not going to be seen very often at all. You have to be sure that it is known. For me, if I instantly know a card from the remembered stack then I put it in a “pending” stack. I check that stack the next session and any word I cannot instantly identify goes back into the Remembered stack. Anything I instantly remember stays there for one week when it gets reviewed again. If I still instantly know the card, it gets moved to known.
  4. I review a random chunk of known card. If any aren\’t really known, I move them back to remembered.
As I\’m sure you can tell, this is a pretty time consuming process. However, I\’ve found it to be the best solution for longterm learning. In other words, this isn\’twhat you do the night before a test! It\’s a slow process that you have to do consistently to see real results, but if you\’re really interested in learning a language to use—contrasted with learning a language to pass a test or a class—then this is the way to go.
* Nota Bene: Hebrew syntax is actually a lot tougher than is typically understood. However, this process is aimed towards beginning a language more for those who understand the complexities of Hebrew syntax, so it\’s “good enough for gov\’t work.” 

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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