About the Series
This is part 2 in a series of posts laying out the problems with traditional Koine Greek teaching methods (though we will soon have opportunity to question just how “traditional” they really are in the broader scope of history) and proposing a reformation in pedagogy.
Part 1 dealt with equivocation on the word reading. When traditional pedagogy claims to train students to “read” Ancient Greek texts, we must realize that it is actually referring to a very slow, analytical, tools-heavy, form-focused decoding of a text into a (usually rather poor) English translation or crib. That’s not what normal people mean by reading!
In this installment, I want us to consider another aspect of the disconnect between claim and reality in Greek pedagogy—namely, how students are tested.
Testing in a Communicative Approach
In a communicative approach to teaching languages, testing follows this model:
- It happens every minuteof class, every day, because the class is conducted in the target language. Students “pass” when they understand and properly respond (in the target language).
- One-on-one oral examsin the language are common, to see how the student can carry on a conversation about certain topics.
- Written tests (at least beyond the first semester) are monolingual, in the target language. Thus, on a Spanish test, the questions and instructions are in Spanish and require Spanish answers.
- The bottom line: the communicative method tests exactly what it aims for—fluency in understanding and communicating in the language.
Modern language programs succeed or fail based on real-world results: Can a third-year French student survive and even flourish in France during her semester abroad? Can the German department graduates get jobs with BMW in Munich? Commercial language programs have an even greater reason to succeed. If their students can’t hack it in foreign language business situations, the program will go out of business.
Testing in the Traditional Biblical Greek Class
(Note: this applies to most Biblical Hebrew courses, too.) In a traditional grammar-translation classroom, 99-100% of the time is spent speaking English, rather than the target language, Greek. Testing follows the same model:
- Tests are written only, never involving speaking or listening.
- The test is completely in English. That is, the questions and instructions are not in Greek and the student is never required to express himself in Greek.
- The tests are usually analysis-heavy. Students are asked to parseisolated verbs, nouns, etc.
- The skills tested often have no necessary link to fluency. For example, students will be asked to fill out a paradigm chart, or decline a verb. These are tasks native speakers in many languages would not be able to perform, although they are fluent!
- Vocabulary is tested by providing the student with a list of discrete, single words, for which the student must provide a one or two word English “equivalent” or gloss. Never mind that many words have no English equivalent, or have many widely different English equivalents! And never mind that Greek words don’t “mean” English words. Never mind also that words have meaning only in context!
- Any sentences or paragraphs on the test that actually are in Greek are there only to be woodenly translated (and probably parsed along the way) into English (let’s be honest Greeklish, aka NASB English ), not to be comprehended or responded to in any way. For example, the student will never be asked, τί ἐποίησας ἐχθές; and need to write in response, ἔφαγον καὶ προσηυξάμην καὶ ἀνέγνων.
All of these elements test short-term memory and virtually nothing else. When I was a student, I would short-term memorize the paradigm chart and then immediately upon receiving the test, would brain-dump it onto the page, so that I could refer to it throughout the test. Anyone who’s taught Greek has seen the charts written in the margins of tests for later reference.
Vocabulary lists, similarly, are committed to short-term memory through flashcards, and promptly forgotten, because they are not meaningfully linked to other information in the student’s mind.
And, here’s the really dirty secret: The sentences and paragraphs to be translated on tests have, in most cases, already been translated in the course as part of a homework assignment. Students may even have been previously quizzed on the exact same sentences that end up appearing on the midterm or final exam. Students learn how to work the system and simply memorize the translations of all the practice sentences to regurgitate them on their exams. Thus, their ability to translate is not actually tested at all, only their ability to memorize!
If you think I’m misrepresenting or caricaturing the state of affairs, please realize that I am describing what was the norm at every institution I have attended or taught in. That includes 2 colleges (one with a NT Greek program, the other with a well-regarded classics program), 2 seminaries (both with extensive language requirements), and two of the top three research universities in the US (both their classics and religion depts). Are there exceptions? Certainly. Some follow a reading approach. Others eschew chart-filling on tests. But they are all working within the dominant grammar-translation paradigm.
Coming Up Next
In the next installment, we will examine the level of proficiency teachers of NT Greek enjoy. “Oh how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Do they not fit him to perfection?”