The annual meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature was held last week in Chicago. Over the next couple of posts I want to sum up some of the activities that our Applied Linguistics group hosted. Hopefully I do better on this year’s summary than I did on last year’s (which I should probably one day get around to finishing!). I didn’t make it to the ETS meeting this year, so if anyone attended the Greek sessions there and is interested in doing a guest post (or posts) on them, please let me know.
Psycholinguistics and Greek
I’ll start with the first session on Saturday morning. Brian Schultz, who serves with me on the ALBL group’s steering committee, presented the first paper. It was a true bombshell. Brian has been researching the process and theory of reading over the past year and presented his findings with a few applications to teaching biblical languages. His focus in this paper was the psycholinguistics of reading, namely, what kind of process does your mind go through when you read a word, sentence or paragraph? What does it mean (in terms of second language acquisition) to be a proficient reader?
Reading is Hearing
I took a couple key points away from the presentation:
- Proficient reading in a second language is NOT translation into the first language, for example, from Greek to English. Those who read proficiently have already internalized the language.
- For proficient reading, automaticity is necessary. In SLA, automaticity means automatic recognition and understanding of a word or phrase. It actually happens involuntarily, without intervening analysis. It is not subject to introspection.
- In proficient reading, there is a phonological loop. As you read, you subvocalize (i.e. say the words in your mind), and your mind stores these virtual ‘sounds’ in its short term memory buffer where they can be recognized and comprehended automatically. This short term working memory allows understanding to occur in chunks. Here’s the main point about the phonological loop: it exists in order to allow you to hear the words so that you can understand them. All true reading entails this conversion of the written word into virtual sound. Thus, in a sense, reading is hearing. Of course, the only way you can ‘hear’ the words in your mind is to have heard them before in real-life, communicative situations where they were used in a comprehensible context.
Reading vs. Speed-Translating
So, here’s the bottom line: in order to read proficiently, you have to have oral-aural proficiency. It’s a prerequisite, without which a well-functioning phonological loop and automaticity can never exist. A corollary to this, as Brian pointed out, is that nobody is really reading the biblical languages nowadays. We are, at best, speed-translating. This is because nobody has developed the oral-aural basis necessary for reading. Some second language acquisition experts actually go so far as to say that the best way to improve your reading is to become more fluent in hearing and speaking the language, since this is the basis for all reading. This seems to me to be right, at least in the first stages of language acquisition. It does seem, though, that the learner eventually reaches something of a threshold, where they have become fluent enough in the oral-aural aspects of the second language that most of their linguistic development (such as further vocabulary acquisition) will come through what Krashen calls free voluntary reading. Of course, free voluntary reading is impossible until a basic level of oral-aural fluency has been established.
Speak to Read
Where does this leave us? Well, it highlights the need to focus language classes on providing tons of spoken comprehensible input so that we and our students can hear and understand the language as we see it–automatically and without thinking or analyzing–rather than seeing Greek but thinking English, as the speedier decoders among us have become accustomed to doing.
It also emphasizes what so many apparently (at least from the objections I normally encounter) cannot get: if your goal is to fluently read Ancient Greek or Hebrew you have to learn to speak and hear it. There are no shortcuts. We’re not doing this so that we can one day order non-foamy lattes (or orange mocha frappuccinos) in Greek; our ultimate goal is to read these languages fluently, for pleasure, with understanding, and without the intrusion of English. Speaking ancient Greek is a means to an end; the end is authentic reading.
DISCLAIMER: I am not psycho. I am not a linguist. Nor am I a psycholinguist. I may have misunderstood Brian and some of the details of his presentation. Feel free to comment with technical corrections. Also, if you attended the session and want to supplement my report, please do so, as I did not take notes and am relying entirely on my memory.