Anyone who has ever set out to learn a second language knows the importance of finding the right method. The proper method of language acquisition is often the difference between success and failure.
Just a few months ago, after learning Koine Greek from a fantastic resource I decided that I needed to learn Babylonian Aramaic. Babylonian Aramaic is a dialect of the Aramaic language that was spoken by Babylonian Jews for centuries. It is also the predominate language of the Talmud.
Why would I want to learn such a bizarre language that lives between the bindings of legal codes? Well, because I love the rigor the Talmud forces on your mind and because I’m pursuing higher education in Talmudic studies. So, when I saw that a new grammar on Babylonian Aramaic had been released I was delighted. Overjoyed actually, because I had been searching for a formal way to learn Aramaic for a while, so I quickly bought Elitzur A. Bar-Asher Siegal’s new work, Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (Eisenbrauns 2013).
When the book finally arrived I was deeply disappointed; at nearly every turn of the page I found Bar-Asher defying modern linguists’ advice on how to teach a second language.
Over the past few decades cognitive scientists and linguists have discovered what they believe is the best way to teach a new language. They’ve shown that the mind has an innate instinct to learn language. It is a miracle that a human child by the age of three has a firm grasp of language and its hundreds of thousands of words, intricate grammar, syntax, and contradictions. Therefore, kids are the best place to look when asking the question, “What is the best way to learn a new language?” And that’s what cognitive scientists did. They noted how children learn language, and it’s not by obsessively memorizing charts or dissecting words into stems, prefixes, and suffixes. Instead, our minds create language by slowly categorizing the sounds of the grammar and syntax into rhythm loops which serves space from which a child’s vocabulary rapidly grows.
Therefore, learning through slow auditory and visual representations of the language is ideal. Cramping charts and ripping words apart is about the worst way to learn a language. This is exactly what Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic does; it forces the reader to slog through chart after chart of words in their most unnatural state but also grammar devoid of its companions—syntax and vocabulary. When I learn a new language I want to feel like a kid on a treasure hunt with each new word and grammatical concept being the jewels and gold coins I discover.
This review has largely been negative of the way Bar-Asher teaches the Aramaic language. So I will end on a positive note, the book does a great job of teaching the student about the Aramaic language. If one is interested in learning about Aramaic instead of learning the language itself, then this resources would rank as perhaps one of the best.