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Vocabulary learning


Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic…

With all the language classes, there’s the challenge of Vocabulary acquisition.  There’s many ways to learn vocabulary, and I wanted to take a moment to explain my method.

There’s four basic skills when we talk about language learning: hearing, speaking, reading and writing.  Two of them are interpreting language coming in (hearing and reading), and the other two deal with producing the language yourself (speaking and writing).  When learning ancient languages, the focus is typically on just reading.  This isn’t really a natural way to learn a language, but we don’t have much choice, since there’s no ancient Israelites to practice with.

My current method is inspired by the Pimsleur Approach (which I’ve only read about), and basically made my life so much easier.  The goal is to have the words in my long term memory by the time the quiz arrives, instead of cramming a day or two before and relying only on short-term memory.  I do this by passively memorizing: reviewing words starting two weeks before a quiz.  During a semester I have 5 “piles” of cards, two of which are in the box.  “New words”, “2nd week words”, “review pile”, “known” (in the box) and “unknown” (in the box).

I know there’s plenty of software programs and apps out there, but I actually find them too restrictive, and prefer actual cards.  There’s boxed sets available for Greek and Hebrew, plus you can get a box of blank cards to make your own (I needed this for Greek Exegesis, since we were getting into rare words that weren’t in the regular boxed set).  I still had part of a box of blanks leftover from college anyway.


The big days are Saturday (perhaps an hour or two by the end of the semester) and Monday (2 minutes several times a day, but at least an hour at the beginning with gaps in between sessions).  The rest of the week requires about five or ten minutes a day, and you only go through two small piles of cards each day.  There might be a few extra minutes on Wednesday.  It takes three weeks to get fully into the system.

I’ll use my Greek Exegesis class as an example, which had a quiz every week.

Step one: Figure out when you need to know your vocabulary.  

For example, a quiz on vocabulary from 1 Peter chapter 1 is on Tuesday, September 15th.  That’s easy.  It’s in the syllabus.  Even though it is a Tuesday, I will just treat that entire week as Quiz Week, and do all my studying before then.

Get Ready- Saturday just over two weeks before the quiz

I take some time to pull the cards at least two weeks ahead of time.

I get or make every card I need, and put it in a pile.  I put an elastic around it, along with a scrap of paper on top of the pile with the label “New words”.

I do this on Saturdays. In this example, on Saturday, August 29th (this was before the beginning of the semester, but the syllabus was already posted on the school’s website, making this possible).

Week 1: two weeks before the quiz (Aug 31st):

I go through my “new words” pile several times.  The goal is to memorize passively by reading it over and over again.  I’m only reading, and am making no attempt to actively memorize on this day.

In the morning (I tend to do some Seminary work before breakfast), I went through the pack one at a time, reading the Greek word, then flipping it over and reading the translation.  After going through the pile once, I did it again.  Then I would do something else for two minutes (eg. turn on computer, etc), then do it again.  Then do something else for 5 minutes (eg. check email), then go through the pack again.  Then at the 10 minutes mark, again after another 30 minutes, then again after an hour.

By this time, life in my house has started, and I might come back to the pile by lunch time and do it again.  Then once more mid-afternoon, and one last time in the evening.  At the end of the day, I would shuffle the cards so that I’m not accidentally memorizing the order.

Day two (Tuesday Sep 1st): 

I go through the “new words” pile two or three times (once in the morning, once in the afternoon, once in the evening) with the same idea: just read it.

Day three (Wednesday Sep 2nd):

On this day, I would change what I’m doing.  I look at the Greek side of the card and attempt to give the translation without looking.  If I was right, I would put it in one pile.  If I was wrong, I would put it into a second pile.  After I had gone through the entire pile, I would pick up the “wrong” pile and look up every word in a concordance, basically doing a bunch of quick word studies (I use a Greek Concordance, not an English one).  Seeing the words in context can help remember them.  It would be nice if I had the time to do this with every word, but I don’t, so that’s why I wait until now.  Even then, I was inconsistent and don’t do this every week.

I then shuffle the hard words back in with the rest of them.

Day four and five (Thursday and Friday, Sep 3rd-4th):

I go through the pile once each day.  If a word is right, I set it aside.  If I am wrong, I put the card back into the pile so that it shows up again.  I keep going through until I’ve managed to get everything right at least once.  (The “normal fashion”)

Day six (Saturday, Sep 5th):

Now we’re back to Saturday.  I go through the “new words” pile I’ve been working with all week, then change the label to “2nd week”. At this point, I get ready for new words by pulling or making cards, say if there’s another quiz on September 22nd.  I now have two piles.  “New words” and “2nd week words”.

Day seven:

Yeah, I just don’t bother studying on Sundays.

Week Two:

Back to Monday.  Just like day 1, I would go through the “new words” pile several times, but the “second week” pile I would only go through once, in the normal fashion, like on days four and five.

During the rest of the week, I would go through the new word pile just like the first week.  But I would only go through the “second week” pile every other day: Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Saturday week two (Sep 12th):

On Saturday, I would get new cards ready for ANOTHER quiz (Sep 29th), taking over the “new words” label.  The week’s new words now get the “2nd week” label.

I now take the pile that just had the “2nd week” label and go through it.  Any words I can get right on my first try go back into the box.  Anything I miss go into a third pile “review words”.  When I put words back in the box, I put them together, sometimes with a scrap of paper to separate them from the rest.  This is my “known” section of the box, and the rest is the “unknown” section.

Week three (Sep 14th to 19th)

Week three is the same as week two with these changes:

-go through the review pile on Tuesday (before the quiz) and Thursday.  Or more often, if you prefer.  If you’re really frustrated with a word, try the word study method to see it in context.

-Write the quiz for that first batch you memorized.  By this point, most of the words are so easy, you’ve just put them back into the box on Saturday.  The hard ones were reviewed before the test.

Saturday week three (Sep 19th):

Same thing, prep new words, change labels on piles, but with this change:

Go through your “known” section of your box.  Anything you don’t get on your first try, pull the card out and put it into your new review pile.  I’ll do this even if I hesitate but get it right anyway.  I’d rather know it without hesitation.

Go through your old review pile.  Anything you get on your first try goes to the “known” section of the box.  Anything you miss goes into the new review pile.

And, of course, the 2nd week words get separated into the review pile or the “known” pile, and the former new words get the 2nd week label.


In summary:


New words several times; 2nd week words x1


New words x3; review pile; quiz


New words x1; 2nd week x1; word studies (optional)


New words x1; review pile


New words x1; 2nd week words x1


Pull/make new cards.  switch labels- new words to 2nd week

2nd week words x1 (change to review or known); Known (change to review if necessary); Review pile (change to known if necessary)

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