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:
- You are not translating into another language. Instead, you are picturing the actions and events themselves.
- 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.
- You are not having to mentally grind through the article. Reading is an enjoyable and more or less effortless action.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- The student has to resort constantly to the lexicon (or, to available translations). And, these lexica, without exception, are Greek to English.
- The student finds the task to be hard work. It does not qualify as reading for pleasure.
- 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.
- 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!