Methods of language learning have always interested me. Recently, I read in Paul Foster’s “Educating Jesus: the Search for a Plausible Context” (Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus Vol. 4.1, pp. 7-33), a suggestion that amongst 1st Century Jews, there was a group of who could read but not write Hebrew. He suggests that Jesus might have belonged to this group. At the time, I found the idea of being able to read but not write very difficult to conceptualise, because writing has been such an important part of my learning to read languages. I’ve always learned to read a language in part by writing it down (copying example sentences). As I travel around Houston, where all major signs are in both English and Spanish I am, however, beginning to understand how this might happen.
Once, years ago, I was taught the basics of Spanish pronunciation and now I am hearing Spanish announcements on buses and trains and reading Spanish signs with English translations under them. I suspect that by the end of my time here, I am likely to be able to read both silently and out loud a particular subset of Spanish, a language which I don’t actually speak.
Of course, this is a different process, because I can already read and write English fluently and have varying literacy levels in a number of other languages and alphabets. I can now see, though, that if you lived in a culture where there was limited need to be able to write, but it was considered useful to be able to read (so you could read Torah in worship, for example) that you could learn to read in a different way, which doesn’t necessarily require being able to write the characters of the alphabet.
It’s probably not the most efficient way of learning to read a language, but I would suggest that the method employed in most theological seminaries in Australia whereby you learn to read, write and translate classical languages without attempting to speak them is less than ideal, too. Whether or not a teaching method happens to conform to the latest educational theories is not at issue here and I certainly now find Foster’s argument more experientially credible now than I did a couple of weeks ago.