Russell T. Fuller and Kyoungwon Choi, Invitation to Biblical Hebrew: A Beginning Grammar, Invitation to Theological Studies. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006. 364 pp. $49.00.
Warning: the use of this grammar could revolutionize the study of Hebrew. Follow all instructions. Use only if the desire is to learn the language. Mix with diligence to achieve desired result: ability to read Hebrew.
Kregel is to be congratulated, and Russell Fuller is to be praised for this pioneering approach to the study of Hebrew. Kregel has published not only the text of Invitation to Biblical Hebrew produced by Fuller and Choi, but also a set of six DVDs containing two semesters’ worth of lectures through the grammar. What ignites the use of the grammar and the DVDs, however, is undoubtedly the workbook. The grammar gives the student the raw data. The DVDs present Fuller lecturing through the grammar. And the workbook—if used—will drill students on the material until the fundamentals of the language are instinctive for them. Grammar, DVDs, workbook: an explosive combination.
Fuller and Choi honed this material through years of classroom use. This reviewer studied under Fuller and Choi as they were perfecting the material, and the method they use is the method that I now use to take my own students through the first year of Hebrew. The procedure looks like this: before coming to class, students are to read the chapter on their own. Having read the chapter, they then watch Fuller lecture on the material on the DVD. At that point, the student is ready to review the chapter. At the end of each chapter is a series of carefully crafted questions. In order to answer these questions, the student must not only regurgitate but be able to use the information presented in the chapter. Questions like these are priceless. They put information into action. Once the student can answer the questions, there is a set of drills waiting at the end of the chapter in the text of the grammar. These drills strategically review material from previous chapters, while pounding home the material from the present chapter. The student comes to class with a working knowledge of the material, hears the professor lecture on the material again, and then moves to the workbook. In the workbook is another set of drills designed to reinforce the material.
Working through the material this way takes the student again and again through the material. Basketball players who do their dribble drills over and over find that the basketball becomes an extension of their hand. Students of Hebrew who faithfully work through this material find that the fundamentals of the Hebrew language become part of the furniture of their minds.
The process may seem extensive and demanding, but the process gives students a real shot at learning a very foreign, very difficult language. Moreover, this process, however intense, is much less painful than the stress produced by other methods which do not drill the material enough for the student to actually learn what is necessary to be able to read.
Theoretically, this method could be used by those not enrolled in a Hebrew course at an institution. Everything necessary to learn the language on one’s own is provided. Thanks to Fuller and Choi, anyone with the time and discipline to consistently go after the material can learn to read Hebrew.
There are all manner of debates among Hebrew grammarians as to the best approach to learning the language: should students proceed inductively or be forced to memorize a bevy of paradigms, does modern linguistics provide a magic potion or is the older approach that compares Hebrew to Arabic and other ancient languages more reliable, and on and on. Fuller and Choi dedicate their work to Isaac Jerusalmi of Hebrew Union College, which will alert those aware of these things to the school of thought to which they belong. The student who comes to this grammar will neither be daunted by a bevy of paradigms nor thrown over the cliff of sheer induction. Rather, by combining the fundamentals of the language with a core of memorization, the student comes to understand how the vowel system works in both nouns and verbs. Whatever one’s perspective on the various debates among Hebrew grammarians, for the student, the method of this grammar, with its brilliant drills, make it the best approach to learning Hebrew. These drills were produced by a beautiful mind and reflect the greatness of a teacher who cares enough for his students to push them to understand the material. Thus, the drills, as with the questions at the end of the chapters, challenge students not only to reproduce the material but master it.
Great teachers, like great coaches, emphasize the fundamentals. Russell Fuller and Kyoungwon Choi understand the fundamentals of the Hebrew language, and their grammar presents these fundamentals in systematic detail. With the systematic detail come an array of pithy mnemonic devices that make the learning of a difficult language fun. One is tempted to call Russell Fuller the John Wooden of Hebrew teachers.