The one thing all language students of Biblical Hebrew (and Greek) and probably every other language need to grasp is paradigms, paradigms, paradigms. There are some for nouns (predicative and attributive); pronominal suffixes (on nouns, verbs, and others); and endless verb conjugations.
There is the simple active (Qal); the simple passive (Nif’al); the reflexive/reciprocal voice, where actions are done to one’s own self (Hitpa’el), the intensive active (Pi’el), the intensive passive (Pu’al), the causative active (Hif’il) and the causative passive (Hof’al). Then there are the strong and the weak verbs (best not to go there). There are infinitives construct and absolute, passive and active participles, imperatives, perfect and imperfect ‘tenses’, and all other sorts of things.
Here are some things that I have found very helpful – and I recommend this to others attempting this beautiful, complicated, and sometimes frustrating language:
1) Be patient and remember there are no short cuts- it takes a lot of devotion and time, and it’s important to only do it if God is calling you to do so, rather than doing it for its own sake. It requires daily attention (1-2 hours is a good amount) and it’s best to say the words and the conjugations aloud. No-one else can do the study for you and, like expecting to get big muscles simply by having an exercise bike in your house without ever using it, you need to keep up the work on a regular basis;
2) Don’t do lots of other subjects with the ‘Brew. The study load for a language is the equivalent, realistically, of two normal subjects so don’t be doing family, work, and 4 college subjects, including Hebrew, at the same time. I did it last semester and it cooked me. So be realistic and plan your time carefully;
3) Read a variety of reference texts. I have been using this year Page Kelley’s introduction to Biblical Hebrew, as that is the prescribed text at college. While a lot of his explanations are helpful, he tends to be very verbose and explains way too much. The book is a semi-reference grammar and explains too much and uses a lot of archaic grammatical expressions; much of it doesn’t even account for modern-day discoveries about Semitic languages. One book that I used last year at SMBC was Introduction to Biblical Hebrew by Drs. George Athas and Ian Young. There, they explain the historical evolution of Hebrew and only teach what is really relevant, rather than absolutely everything. Their explanations are simple, even funny at times, and very succinct. I don’t even feel like I am reading a textbook. They lay out the verb paradigms very simply and in a way that does much better justice to the Hebrew verbal system.
Gary Long’s explanations of Hebrew grammar in simple English is also a help, and van Pelt and Pratico‘s cheat sheet and accompanying summary book is terrific. It is better, in my view, to read some of the more contemporary explanations of Hebrew in order to get a grip on things, otherwise you get tangled in frustrating knots just trying to understand what the grammar book authors are saying in English! The Athas/Young book takes you step-by-step and doesn’t just explain what is going on in Hebrew- it actually shows you and even includes diagrams of how the very odd verbal stem ‘voices’ work (e.g. the Nif’al, which can be passive and assumes a dynamic about actions within a person that have no parallel in English). In older texts like Kelley these explanations are not given and it makes translation wonky and sometimes misguided. So it’s good to read around.
4) Most important- and last- thing: WRITE YOUR OWN SUMMARIES. I bought an A-4 folio notebook of good paper and summarise in 1-2 pages (sometimes 3-4) each chapter of my text book, and include notes from other texts. I try as much as possible to put the explanations IN MY OWN WORDS and even create my own examples. Nothing has helped me to absorb Hebrew faster than this. I have also given up somewhat on understanding every rule and exception: there are just too many and it’s not necessary to know them all (which is what Kelley tries to do). Instead, I just focus on what is really essential (understanding the Qal inflections, particularly the 3ms and 3mp, for argument’s sake) rather than understanding the ins-and-outs of an elephant’s stomach. That has not been necessarily easy because I have had to been familiar with Hebrew for some time before I could decide on that (and I needed also the input of others like my lecturers to know what is really critical or not) but that has helped trim it down.
These are just my tips but I hope that helps others to manage the enormous load that is Hebrew study. Biblical Hebrew is quirky: there is no really obvious place to start teaching it because it long ago had little grammar! But while it starts out quite unnatural and difficult it actually gets easier and more predictable over time (contrary to Koine Greek, which seems to be easy at the beginning but gets more tricky as study goes on). I have laboured with much frustration through Biblical Hebrew and it’s often been very hard slogging, but it does get easier. It just takes a lot of prayer, planning, patience, and persistence. It needs daily attention or else it just evaporates (e.g. revising vocabulary). It’s not enough to rely on computer language programmes like Logos either: there is no substitute for the hard work of self-guided study.
The biggest tip I would give is: don’t study the language if you are not passionate about it and do not enjoy language. Language study is to serve one basic purpose: to understand God’s word better, to understand His will better, which is to draw ever closer to God. But if I are not already close to Him and walking with Him in daily surrender and obedience then Hebrew study is a waste of time: will not edify me or any of my listeners (1 Cor 13). Rather, it will inflate my pride and bring damnation and hurt to myself and others and I personally have been wounded by many pastors and preachers because they, in their pride, thought language study would compensate for their own brokenness and lack of trust in Jesus. Remembering these things has kept me sane throughout language study and instead of it being a drag, I have begun to see it as a really fun adventure, like a Lego set or a cool puzzle rather than something I need to do to prove to somebody else (even God).
PS – there are two websites that can really help with self study: 1) Hebrew Audio Bible. If you cannot keep up with the cantor, that is OK: listen to it again and again as much as you need to and try to read the same words. The speaking and listening will reinforce the learning incredibly, even if you do it alone and sound funny doing it; 2) Use Anki, a downloadable computer programme to help with memorising complex things (language, science, or anything else). Simply in the Hebrew vocab and paradigms (you can even record your own voice and add pictures if you wish) and it will prompt you to practise the difficult words that you can’t seem to remember. This has helped me immensely with remembering hard words and discerning the difference between two words that sound identical (e.g. √שׁמע (sham’a he heard, kept) and √שׁמר (shamar, he obeyed).
Enjoy studying the ‘Brew and ‘Brew well :D