The Place of Audio Materials in the Life of the Biblical Language Scholar Who is Blind

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

The title of this article may seem provocative if you have not had experience teaching a person who is blind. I have met professors who assume, quite naturally, that a recorded book is a perfect solution for a scholar who is blind. Those professors were unaware that the biblical languages could be represented in braille or that any problems might arise when a person attempted to participate in a course with sighted peers using an audio textbook. Perhaps I should give them a lot of grace. After all, I once believed that Hebrew and Greek had no braille symbols and therefore I could not learn them at all!

Many language instructors are advocating the use of audio and audio/visual materials in courses (e.g. Randal Buth at Biblical Language Center. Buth also encourages use of pictures. This approach reinforces the language through hearing and seeing as well as reading, whereas traditional instruction methods involve simply translating and memorizing.

This, however, is not what I speak of when I am discussing the use of audio. My discussion is complex; and I will in this article attempt to address the many places that audio study material hold in the life of a scholar who is blind. The primary dilemma is in the life of the beginning learner, where the material is grammar, exercises, quizzes, etc. The same materials are normally provided to sighted scholars in print format.

I should say here that there are several types of “scholars who are blind”.

  1. those who are classified legally blind and who read with magnification or a combination of magnification and other formats
  2. those who are most comfortable reading in braille, often “native braille readers” (e.g. people who have been reading braille since their early school years)
  3. those who do not know braille at all (usually people who lost their sight in adulthood
  4. those who can read braille but whose fluency is not adequate for lengthy reading tasks

People in the third and fourth categories tend to use audio materials as a matter of course, even when it is difficult. Therefore, the primary group for whom this question applies is those in category 2.

When I served as a teaching assistant in Greek, we had a very bright student in the class who was a native braille reader. Early in the course, we found that the quizzes had been prepared in BibleWorks font, which was not compatible with her screen reader. The professor tried reading the translation exercise on the first quiz for her to parse. When working from a braille copy of the text, which she had, she was a quick and nearly-perfect parser. However, when attempting to parse the dictated exercise, she was unable to remember the exercise and work through it at the same time. In the future, I “transcribed” from BibleWorks to Unicode font for each quiz.

our Greek student would have benefitted from learning to work with audio material such as a reading of the Greek New Testament, perhaps even hearing comparative versions with different pronunciations. I continued working with Greek students for two years; and several of them sought out opportunities to do just this. They all happened to be sighted.

This, however, is a different task from attempting to work with grammar exercises or parsing on a quiz while using recorded material. Blind scholars who work with grammars in audio format, translate or parse from dictation, etc, engage in a much more complex task than what people are doing when they listen and follow or pick out a few vocabulary words that are familiar. What these blind scholars are doing requires not only finding the familiar words but also coping with the pronunciation scheme used by a reader who may be less than ideally qualified for the job, remembering an entire phrase or passage and sorting out what to do with it without the benefit of being able to orient to it spatially in any way, and develop a parsing scheme that can be used in place of the visual scheme that sighted people use.

In short, I am not in favor of use of audio grammars. I should pause here and say that there are times when there is no choice but to use audio materials. If a student does not read braille but wants to study Hebrew or Greek, then by all means find a way! There is an excellent recorded Hebrew Bible available for purchase; and if a person wants to put in the necessary effort to learn to study Hebrew orally, then I say let them do it. Greek recordings are of lesser quality; but they do exist. The primary challenge is not access to biblical text but to secondary learning materials.

If a scholar elects to employ other students as readers, the impact of audio usage is further illustrated. A very advanced student may read well. However, unless a university requires students to read aloud or speak in the language, oral fluency will not develop and even advanced students will not provide adequate rendering of the language. Inaccurate pronunciation of words and phrases by a reader can cause a scholar to make errors that are not her own. Inconsistency of pronunciation between readers and professors can be a source of extreme stress in the learning process. It is best to remove the middle element and give the scholar a faithful rendering whenever possible, especially in the beginning stages of language study.

It is possible to obtain [dated] grammars from Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. This agency works with volunteer readers to record texts. Readers are not necessarily especially qualified in their fields of study; and it is not uncommon for one reader to stop in the middle of a recording and another reader to pick up where the first left off. Most language readers are highly skilled; but pronunciation of languages is not uniform, and it may differ significantly from the pronunciation used in a particular university course. This is especially true in the case of Greek and Hebrew, where pronunciation schemes may vary from speaker to speaker and one university to another. If a recorded grammar is absolutely the only way to go, this is an option.

In recent years, Logos software has become somewhat accessible with IOS devices running IOS 8. IOS 8 includes support for both Hebrew and Greek; and using these devices it is possible to access original language materials using VoiceOver on the IPhone or IPAD. This option has limitations and is not always a satisfying experience for users who are blind; but it is becoming more workable, especially for accessing reference material.

Even without using recorded grammars, scholars who are blind will likely use audio materials in some aspect of their study; and it is important that they be able to cope with varying pronunciations as they progress in their scholarship. Someone will read a commentary to them one day–and will probably pronounce the foreign language material incorrectly. In their quest for accessible study aids, they will run across various downloadable lectures and recordings of the Bible. Computer software can now read Hebrew and Greek aloud, though it may use a different pronunciation scheme from what they learn in class. In the “real world,” they will encounter people who pronounce the language differently as they study with other scholars.

I address this problem in my Hebrew course by exposing students to audio materials so that they are not dumped into the deep end on their own; but it is not possible to do this with complete adequacy in a single course. One primary pronunciation scheme must be chosen and the other is minimized for the sake of learning the material. In my Hebrew course, we use modern Israeli pronunciation because that is the scheme used by the best recorded Hebrew Bible available. I provide some brief recordings of other pronunciation samples for the sake of exposure. I do not test on this information. I am fully aware, while doing this, that many Hebrew helps use the “traditional” system–Pratico and Van Pelt use “waw,” “yodh” and “beth” to my “vav,” “yod” and “bet”. “James Voels uses “a” as in “bat” for patah to my “ah” as in “father” and “saw” instead of “tav”. I know that my students will encounter these materials in their quest for more accessible resources; and that is the situation that I hope to prepare them to handle. If they are ready to hear the multitude of pronunciations, they can choose the one that fits their needs.

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