2011-09-23

Learning unspoken languages

Having started to relearn Russian recently, I feel so strongly that learning languages is my academic "anchor" that I have decided to start learning one unspoken language I have always wanted to learn but have failed in a number of trials. It is Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, the language of the Gemara part of the Babylonian Talmud, which has shaped the traditional Jewish way of thinking more than any other Jewish classical source. I have already made the necessary arrangement to learn it in a formal setting, i.e., to take a course in it at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, my alma mater.

The main reason why I have failed a number of times in learning this important language is that it is unspoken. I seem to have a serious problem in learning unspoken languages as I have to hear the sounds of a language I am learning. For this (and, of course, other) reasons I could not learn Classical Greek and Latin.

In terms of the accessibility of their sounds, unspoken, i.e., "dead", languages can be classified into those with reading traditions and those without. Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, like Biblical Hebrew, belongs to the former group. But the reading traditions of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, especially Traditional Ashkenazic and Modern Israeli traditions, which are the two most widespread ones in the Jewish world today, are not so well documented as those of Biblical Hebrew. Nor can one reconstruct the phonology of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic so well as that of Biblical Hebrew.

So I had been in limbo, until it suddenly came to me recently to take a course in this language taught by one of its most important researchers in the world. I can rely on his pronunciation. So I hope that lack of certainty about its phonology would not be an issue that have prevented me from continuing to learn the language. I am already quite convinced that this will be a totally different learning experience from learning living languages like Russian.