What Does it Mean to “Read” Greek? (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 1)

By far the most common objection to oral/aural methods for teaching ancient Greek is the following: Greek is a dead language. We will never need to speak ancient Greek, so why should we waste time listening to and speaking it when we only want to learn to read it?

This will be the first of a series of posts (see pt. 2 here and pt. 3 here) dealing with this multifaceted objection. In upcoming posts I will address why it is essential to learn the oral/aural aspects of the language in order to read proficiently, as well as what we mean by “dead language,” and some hermeneutical reasons for learning to hear/speak Greek. But first I want to address the way this objection fails to be clear about the meaning of the term, “reading.”

The Meaning of Reading
Now, I assume that most readers of this blog are native English speakers. So, think about what you are doing when you read a modern text, say, a newspaper article, or a blog post, in English, your native language. Think about the mental processes involved. Imagine that the news article describes the president holding a press conference. As you read the article, you envision the press conference taking place. You construct a mental image of the podium, staffers, newspaper and TV reporters, and as the article recounts the questioning, you can hear in your mind the back-and-forth between president and press corps.

Reading is Easy!
Notice what is missing from your reading experience:

  1. You are not translating into another language. Instead, you are picturing the actions and events themselves.
  2. You are not having to look words up in a dictionary. If you discover a word you don’t know, you infer its meaning from the context. Or, in the rare case you do actually consult a dictionary, you consult a monolingual dictionary, i.e. one that defines English words by means of other English words.
  3. You are not having to mentally grind through the article. Reading is an enjoyable and more or less effortless action.
  4. You are not analyzing the morphology, grammar, or syntax of the article. The only time you notice these things is when there’s a typo or mistake. Yet, somehow, mirabile dictu, you’re comprehending the article.
  5. You are reading rapidly. The average American adult reads around 300 words per minute (for the sake of comparison, that’s about 1.5 pages in a Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek NT).

Grinding through Greek
Now, compare that experience to the typical student’s experience “reading” a Greek text. It is almost the opposite at every point:

  1. The student translates from Greek into English. Indeed, that is the very task he is graded on–not how well he has comprehended the text.
  2. The student has to resort constantly to the lexicon (or, to available translations). And, these lexica, without exception, are Greek to English.
  3. The student finds the task to be hard work. It does not qualify as reading for pleasure.
  4. The student is focused on form, grammar and syntax, and often on analyzing, labeling or parsing various elements, not on comprehension. Indeed, comprehension is delayed until the translation into English is completed and can be read by the student.
  5. The student is moving slowly, at a snail’s pace, really. Analysis and translation takes time. Many students I have interviewed find that working through a page of text can take almost an hour. That’s a rate of 5 words per minute!

So, in all honesty, can we really say that both activities deserve the same label? It’s time we stopped talking about traditional pedagogy teaching students to read Greek, and began to speak more accurately about it training students to decode, analyze and translate Greek. Then we can discuss whether such a skill is worth spending countless hours and tuition dollars on, or whether there might be approaches that would actually lead to the ability to read Greek for comprehension and pleasure. That’s the subject of the next post in the series. Stay tuned . . .

Follow Up: James McGrath, at the very fine biblioblog, Exploring Our Matrix, links up to our series and has some thoughtful comments on the topic, including a response to Daniel’s lengthy comment below. James is worth listening to, not only as a top-shelf Biblical Studies scholar, but also as someone who has actually achieved proficiency in a second language. Thanks, James!

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30 Responses to What Does it Mean to “Read” Greek? (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 1)

  1. Pingback: Daniel R. Streett on What It Means to “Read” Greek | Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

  2. Jeremy Myers says:

    Looking forward to what you have to say on this.

  3. Pingback: Streett on Reading Greek « ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ

  4. Love it! Great post, looking forward to the next one.

  5. Pingback: Are we really learning to read Greek? | Greeking Out

  6. Pingback: Read Greek

  7. Andrew Hebert says:

    I enjoyed and appreciated this post. However, do you think that it is fair to compare English and Greek, since Greek is a more complex language? Also, is there any value, in your thinking, in noting (and explaining, say, in a sermon) the ins and outs of the grammatical features of the language such as tense, voice, mood, etc.?

    • Andrew, good question. Is Greek more complex than English? I wonder if it only seems that way because we are not native speakers. English has its own complexities, not to mention a huge vocabulary, but because English is not heavily inflected, it seems to us that Greek is more complex. I wonder if Koine Greek seemed complex to the audiences of the NT?
      Your second question is one that I will definitely be posting about in the future. I do believe analysis has its place; I just want to distinguish analyzing a language and talking about it from actually acquiring the language and using it.

  8. Pingback: Another Post on Reading Greek « Arthad's Blog

  9. Carl W. Conrad says:

    This is something I’ve been trying to enunciate for a long time, but I never got it out so thoroughly and eloquently. Thank you so much for doing this!

    • Thanks, Carl. You have been a great inspiration to me! I already have a post planned dealing solely with your contributions to the discussion. I’m honored to have you as a reader. Ἔρρωσο!

  10. Barry Hofstetter says:

    πολὺ καλά, εὐχαριστῶ. I look forward to the specifics of your methodology, and particularly how successful they have been in your own teaching.

    • Thanks for reading, Barry! I think even if you don’t end up seeing eye to eye with me on pedagogy, we both agree that a deep knowledge of Greek (and Latin and Hebrew!) is a desideratum. If Greek teachers could agree on that alone, it would be a great leap forward.

      • Barry Hofstetter says:

        Well, my own methodology is simply how I was taught Greek by excellent professors waaaay back in the 20th century. I have adopted some modern language teaching techniques that I have used more in teaching Latin than Greek (and we start with Classical at TAA). I am not dogmatically or ideologically committed to any particular methodology, but just want what is proven to work the best. One issue that many, perhaps most of us, who teach this face is time. My sense of it is that natural language methods work the best when there is lots of time involved per day or week really to involve students in the process. I’ll be glad to see you address that issue, among others.

  11. Daniel,
    Thanks for your post. Mike Aubrey and I have gone back and forth a bunch on this. I’d like to interact with your some of your thoughts. Let me say up front that I am currently approaching language description and pedagogy in my classes from a (neuro) cognitive linguistic perspective. Some of this has been dealt with on our blog.

    1. Greek is not a dead language. It was spoken long before Dionysus Thraxe first described it in humanity’s first grammar (Tekne Grammatike) and is still spoken today all over the world. Objections to a communicative pedagogy of Greek are silly because there’s probably a native Greek speaker near you with whom you could speak. In fact its for this reason that I have long considered communicative approaches of a reconstructed Koine a waste of time. There’s no need to make-up Greek. Just go to Greece and while you’re there, learn to “read” Homer and the NT.

    2. Reading… the process is much more complex than we might think. One term that does not describe it for humans is “easy”. Reading is an enormously complex cognitive skill that literally changes the brains of the literate. For an introduction (without technical literature), see the Brain Science Podcast. The interview with Maryanne Wolf (#29) is a great episode on this topic, but all the episodes are relevant to language students and scholars.
    One thing I’ve gleaned from the short list of neurological literature I’ve read- Language acquisition happens early in childhood and no other time. Unless one acquires multiple languages as a child, which is very possible, every second-language (L2) experience one has must be viewed as learning and not acquisition. Once one is past the age of acquisition, L2 learning becomes extremely tough (but the human brain is very plastic and old dogs can indeed learn new tricks) and new L2s are not learned as one’s mother tongue was acquired. Thus, L2 users are using different neurological processes than when they use their native language. As such, it seems that as an L2 user I will never read the GNT as I read the Houston Chronicle. Neurologically, engaging the two will always be different processes.

    3. Meaning – From a cognitive perspective, meaning is embodied. It is emotionally driven perception, conception, and memory expressed in symbols: phonological and even orthographical in some cultures. As modern English speakers removed by language, time, and culture, we cannot directly engage the embodied meaning of the Bible as the original audience did, not to mention that of its authors. We are not them and have not lived their experiences. The most we can do is pour over every scrap of data we can get our hands on: textual and archaeological alike. From this, we may attempt to describe what is going on linguistically in the NT, but to say that one can be comprehend Koine as one does a native language is not neurologically or psychologically plausible. First, you have to invent a time machine. Then you’ve still the got battle of L2 neurology.

    4. Pedagogy – At Stellenbosch, we teach students to understand the Hebrew or Greek text in Hebrew or Greek by using the best tools available. This includes reference grammars, lexica, encyclopedias, and even the tools of modern linguistics. Once this is done, then we talk about translation, which is a completely different ball game. Translation theory is its own discipline and quick target language glosses cannot be conflated with source language meaning. You are right that too many language teachers confuse the meaning of an original text with a translation.

    The immediate benefit I see (and have experienced in a Hebrew ulpan) with biblical language students who learn the modern form of the respective language or otherwise learn communicatively is that of vocab mastery. Using your vocab in communicative situations will cement those lexemes in your memory like flashcards cannot. However, a communicative approach to Koine cannot give you a Koine mind.


    • Daniel, Thanks for reading and interacting! I’m going to keep my reply briefer than I’d like because, instead of carrying on a lengthy discussion in the comments, I’d prefer to address some of your points in upcoming posts, in which I will link back to your comment.
      1) On Greek as a dead language, we mostly agree, but probably disagree on the benefit (or degree of benefit) of Modern Greek for reading Hellenistic texts. I have a post planned on this (perhaps an interview with John Schwandt, if he’s willing).
      2) Your second point is really two points. The first, on the difficulty of reading, fails, I think to get the point I was making, which had to do with the subjective ease of reading for those fluent in the language. That it is complex when we analyze it at a cognitive/neurological level could also be said of speaking, walking, swallowing, sleeping, etc.
      The second point is more deserving of a post-length response. While the neurological processes may be different (would we expect otherwise, given the difference between an immature and mature brain?), it does not necessarily follow that the means by which L2 is acquired (comprehensible input, etc.) should be different. Also, I don’t believe you have used the terms “learning” and “acquisition” here as they are used by S. Krashen, who (as far as I know) was the main advocate of the learning-acquisition hypothesis.
      3) On Meaning. I’d like to deal with some of these objections in upcoming posts. Briefly my take: logically, this leads, I think, to a sort of pedagogical nihilism (which doesn’t necessarily means it’s false, just not that helpful). Your points could also be made to show that all acts of communication are impossible.
      4) On pedagogy, your neat separation between grammatical/linguistic analysis and translation doesn’t seem to me to hold up, since all the grammatical/linguistic tools themselves are already in translation. For example, I look at the Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar for the function of the Niphal and I find translations being used to explain the passive and reflexive meanings of the Niphal.
      5) Your final statement about having a “Koine mind” strays again, I think, into strawman territory. I’m not sure I really know what a Koine mind is, but I imagine that we both agree a major part of learning a language is learning the culture it’s embedded in. If that’s your point, I’m on board, and I stress that in all my classes. If, on the other hand, you are again making a claim for pedagogical nihilism, I would want to respond that just because we can’t put ourselves neurologically, culturally, linguistically, or physically back into Hellenistic culture, doesn’t mean that we should give up the interpretive enterprise or that we should not attempt to imaginatively project ourselves back to the context so that we can try as much as possible to hear these texts as they would have originally been heard. This seems to me the very essence of interpretation. It’s not an all or nothing game.

      Thanks for the interaction!

  12. 1. I look forward to that post.
    2. While thinking and speaking using symbols is just as much a part of human cognition as walking, etc., reading is not. I encourage you to listen to that podcast and look the further resources listed there. But you are right, I was talking around your point. And no I was not using “acquisition” and “learning” in the traditional SLA way.
    3. It would be helpful if you could be clearer with what you mean by pedagogical nihilism. I proposed a definition of meaning based on neuro-cognitive evidence. How is that nihilistic? Obviously communication acts are not impossible and I don’t see how I’ve said so in any way. I look forward to the post on this as well.
    4. Amen! If you’ve got time, I point you to my thesis (http://scholar.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.1/6641) as I argue that L2 translation is not equivalent with source language meaning. I also note, as you just have, how traditional (biblical Hebrew) resources carelessly throw around the phrase “This means…”. Regarding BHRG, I wish I could share the updates that are not yet publicly available. Also, you’ll notice that those translations are accompanied by clear categorical descriptions and BH examples. Specifically regarding BH verbs, I point you to Alex Andrason’s recent work available in JHS (http://www.arts.ualberta.ca/JHS/jhs-article.html).
    5. In your SBL paper, you write that you are trying to think in Greek. Do I have that wrong? That’s what I meant by “Koine mind”.
    Again, please be clear with “pedagogical nihilism”. You are right: it is not an all or nothing game (or text criticism would have died long ago). I never said that we should give up on the task of trying to hear these texts as the original audience would. Quite the opposite. I’m trying to do what you’re trying to do. The best way to do that, in my view, is to try to get a peek at the cognitive world described in the text. And today there are tools and theories that can help. However, we must be realistic about what we can do and what we can’t. We cannot speak fluent Koine because at best it will be a reconstruction (but go ahead and try if you like). Further, English speakers cannot think in Greek unless they were raised bilingual.

    None of that is to disregard the benefits of a communicative approach. It is the best way to learn a language. So if you want to be a Greek master, Koine is a great place to start. But modern Greek will get you communicating a real language with real people. It is worth the time of all biblical language students.

  13. Pingback: On the Web (September 9, 2011) « New Testament Interpretation

  14. Pingback: Discussion Continues about New Testament Study, Languages and Methods | Exploring Our Matrix

  15. Thank you!
    Quite a few years ago I wrote one of those grammars that teach students to “decode, analyze and translate Greek” as you so accurately stated. For several years now I’ve been working on converting it to a web-friendly form and posting it at greek-language.com, but I realize the serious limitations of that method, and it’s very refreshing to read your exposition of the problem.

    One day I hope to the write another introduction to Hellenistic Greek. I hope that one will prepare students to read Greek for comprehension and pleasure, but that may have to wait till I retire!

  16. Pingback: Reading in context | Biblical Language Center

  17. Pingback: Daniel Streett on the state of Greek studies | Biblical Language Center

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  19. m. arnott says:

    Dear Professor Streett:

    Please excuse this rather late comment on your excellent essay.

    I agree on every point you have made, differing only on this:

    first, you have underestimated the value of learning to speak and hear Greek (koine, but it also applies to Classical). Unless we hear the words directly and as spoken words, we cannot be said to read Greek at all. We are decoding it, but we are not, by the powers, reading it.

    Second, you have mentioned the loss of linguistic ability around age six or so. This is very true. But there is another block to English speakers: we have no daily experience of case endings or declensions worth mentioning. The habit of case endings is foreign to us. The idea of an accusative (leaving aside her him them etc) is utterly strange to us. The mental gap that must be overcome before someone begins to use an accusative ending (or a dative, or a genitive) is very difficult to cross.

    This is an important topic, much neglected.

    Tear ahead!


    m. arnott

  20. Danae says:

    Thank you for this series of posts, they are very interesting. I have to say that until I read this, I hadn’t realized I wasn’t the only Greek student having trouble reading Greek even after years of studying it. I thought everyone else (or those who worked harder than I did) read it fluently and I was just slow and stupid and hadn’t paid enough attention in class.

  21. Peter says:

    (and is that “HAIR e teh, or CHAI re teh?)

    I suppose I’m in trouble already, having read danielandtonya’s first post about the value of re-constructed Koine, which he thinks to be of little use. Rather, because I am finding value for myself in NOT using some form of the Erasmian pronunciation, and use a re-constructed Koine, especially when I read the NT out loud. And so, I think Randall Buth is right, mostly, in asserting the value of knowing, especially, the vowels’ and diphthongs’ sounds during the Koine period, and these have been worked out by Buth and others. See his Η Κοινη Προφερα at http://www.biblicallandguagecenter. At least, as he says in that paper (and I agree) it sounds like a Greek dialect, whereas the pronunciation used by the academy sounds even offensive to native Greek speakers.

    As for pedagogical methods, I have no opinion because I lack any expertise to comment. However, the immersion techniques used by the Biblical Language Center and others for any modern language DO work because of the method of engagement of the student and the amount of contact time. Thus, there is acquisition of a large vocabulary and of many of the language’s structures.
    Χαρισ και ειρηνη,

  22. Pingback: She said Hebrew: A Writing journey to the Biblical Languages - Settled in the Word

  23. Pingback: 7 tips to make Biblical Hebrew and Greek study easier - Settled in the Word

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