Return of the retro: How to apply old-school learning methods to your modern learning


In this week's blog post Marta Krzeminska, a language coach from Lingualift, shares her experience of learning Biblical Hebrew at Oxford and explains how we can apply the techniques she used to our own language learning.


If you have ever moved houses, you know the process usually turns into a nostalgic trip. You feel like Jacques Cousteau visiting the unexplored lands of “the Attic”, the dusty caves of “the Under-bed”, and the murky depths of “the Shed”, digging up nearly ancient Christmas decorations, hand-knitted sweaters, and Husky the dog—your own toy from the carefree times before the word entertainment only meant Netflix.

During my recent move, I have also excavated piles of books, including miscellaneous volumes on topics such as Korean cooking, Norwegian folktales and the Chinese art of papercutting. To match this international theme, there were also materials from my undergraduate course in Biblical Hebrew.

hebrew books


While going through the mental struggles of purge-or-keep I have mentally revisited some of my university learning experiences. I can't deny that the teaching methods that we followed at uni were even more old school than the Pringles lunch containers. But, that made me think: does old-school mean bad?

We could argue that modern methods are using up-to-date research and incorporating advanced technological tools, like Lingualift, or are more varied. But, perhaps each of these approaches is just a variation on the same common theme?

Join me on the nostalgic (and a little bit scary) trip back to the dusty office of the prominent Biblical Hebrew scholar and expert on the book of Isaiah, Professor H.G.M. Williamson. Let's see what old-school practices we can use to enhance our modern study approaches.

##Class time—mentor time

Classes at uni were regular and their goal was to introduce new concepts. The professor knew students were perfectly capable of understanding the basic information on their own. He would quickly run through a chapter of the textbook, only stopping to point out those pieces of information that were especially important or problematic, and add little bits that the book omitted.

The class was also our time to ask questions about the previously covered material.

>Class time is limited, it's your chance to consult the expert.

Come to your tutorials and classes with prepared questions. You'll save yourself from panic during test time.

##Regular homework

With so much covered so fast in every class, homework was not only what was meant to be handed in and marked. What also took place at home was the actual processing of the material, and for each hour of class time I must have spent at least *four extra hours of alone practice* at home. It included writing and chanting to myself columns of conjugations, experimenting with new irregular verbs, writing sentences to practice the most bizarre declensions — all until I felt there was nothing that could surprise me.

> True practice happens on your own. Address your weaknesses with appropriate exercises and perform them until you can do so with your eyes closed.

##Putting on the spot

Fear of embarrassment can be a great motivator—in moderation of course! When you learn a modern language you usually practice verbs in sentences, and probably forget the irregular conjugations that aren't that commonly encountered.

As Biblical Hebrew is not used in speech, every conjugation, however rarely used, is almost equally important. Our final exams were to be grammar drills under time pressure, and not being able to retrieve the required verb form quick enough could cost a crucial percentage point.

To help us reach flawless performance the professor would routinely quiz each of us on the irregular forms. He'd throw at us, what I call, “grammatical coordinates”, for example:

  • Third person feminine plural imperfect hiphil from the root yashav*.

Now, for those rare specimens among you who don't know Biblical Hebrew, this is an equivalent of something like:

  • 3rd person singular, imperfect subjunctive of traducir**.

The amount of mental gymnastics one has to make and verb tables one has to navigate through to retrieve the correct answer inevitably produces a headache. Add to it the piercing eyes of the professor and the suddenly deafening sound of the clock, and you feel like you're in a warzone conducting an arms deal.

Now, I don't know what the value of this practice would be for learning modern languages, but:

  1. doing it at speed made us all feel like little grammar soldiers,
  2. I hope reading about it made you grateful that you can learn at your own pace at home.

Weingreen grammar table


##Immediate feedback

Classes always involved homework some of which we went through during the next meeting. Rather than immediately giving feedback the professor, like the host of the show “Who wants to be a Millionaire”, would ominously ask the person at the white-board whether they were _sure_ of their answer. More often than not the question itself meant you did in fact make a mistake. To give you a second chance to save your face if you didn't spot it at the first go, the professor would eventually point at the faulty word and ask you to correct it.

Think three times before you commit to an answer.

This kind of immediate feedback taught us to think three times before we committed to an answer, and check our work _really_ thoroughly before submitting.

>Ask for immediate feedback during the learning phase and correct your mistakes.

Generating exam conditions

You might think that putting students on the spot and the slightly patronising approach during classes were cruel, and at the time they indeed seemed so. However, when it came to exams I understood their value. Once we learned to filter out the stress in class, we were able to more easily focus when the answers really mattered.

> If you're learning for a specific purpose, generate conditions as close to your goal as possible.

If you're learning French to conduct sales calls, practice mock calls with your tutor. It _will_ be stressful and you _will_ make mistakes, but isn't this much less embarassing than stumbling in front of a client?

I admit, getting up for an 8 am class full of paradigm chants, embarrassments in front of the white board and receiving homework assignments invariably dripping in red ink wasn't a walk in the park. But in the end, not only did I ace my exams, but I also learned how perseverance and the right methods can make my skills skyrocket. How high? From zero to reading the book of Kings after two months of intense learning.

As the ancient Hebrew writers would write: וְהָיָה גַּם לָכֶם, vehaya gam lakhem: and may it come to pass also to you, in any language you're learning***.


*For those interested it'd be תּוֹשֵׁבְנָה to-shev-na, with an accent on the שׁ; an unattested form.

** Ok, fine since you were so curious it's tradujera or tradujese.

***They probably wouldn't really care about your learning and would more likely wish you plenty of oxen.

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