The Man Behind the Curtain—Or, The Dirty Truth About Most New Testament Greek Classes (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 2)

man-behind-the-curtainAbout 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.

pimsleurModern 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 Smile), 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.

Brain DumpAll 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?”

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About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
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20 Responses to The Man Behind the Curtain—Or, The Dirty Truth About Most New Testament Greek Classes (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 2)

  1. Pingback: Greek Pedagogy « ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ

  2. arthad says:

    What makes the situation even more unfortunate is that the grammar-translation method (GTM) is universally decried by people teaching the modern languages and working in second language acquisition theory. Textbooks on language teaching methodology don’t even give GTM serious consideration, because as a method it works against internalization and fluency.

    At beginning levels, not all communicative language teachers use L2 exclusively. When I took Spanish and French, for example, the instructor used a combination of L1 and L2, using more and more L2 as the students’ abilities increased. But still, the focus was on production: as you said, real-world results. Can you use the language to buy food? To get directions? To find the bathroom? (In that situation, all students shared English as L1; without a shared L1, of course, instruction must be exclusively in the target language, and it works just fine.) The focus on production and internalization is what’s essential. A progressively shrinking use of L1 doesn’t thwart the communicative goal, but that’s just a minor caveat.

    • Stephen (aka Arthad), Thanks for your comment. You make an important point about L1 use in the L2 classroom. I noted in my post that modern language tests often have a partial English component, at least early on. This L1 use progressively decreases over the course of the year and is eventually phased out completely. A couple other points I’m sure you’re already aware of: 1) L1 use isn’t absolutely necessary. For example, Berlitz and other practitioners of the Direct Method enjoyed success using L2 exclusively. 2) Sometimes, it’s not even possible to use L1, because there are numerous L1s in the class. I could teach an ESL class with Korean, Chinese, Spanish, and German students without ever using anybody’s L1. 3) Use of L1 can be bypassed by techniques like TPR.
      Despite the first three points, I think some L1 use is salutary in the L2 classroom, as do most SLA theorists. It provides frightened and uptight students with a transition period early on (kind of a linguistic security blanket). Also, it can speed things up by establishing a rough meaning quickly (this can then be reinforced by use of TPR, etc.). The Greek class I am teaching now is in the 2nd week and we are still using a lot of English, but that percentage will go down as we progress, and the students are all made aware that internalization, not translation, is the goal.
      BTW, your first point, about the universal disdain for GTM in SLA, is right on. I have a post planned on just how backwards the situation is in Biblical language pedagogy, and the very strange responses to SLA that some Biblical Language teachers have offered.

      • arthad says:

        Daniel, I agree. When I spent a month in Hungary being trained to teach EFL, L1 use was obviously impossible! There was no problem at all with my using English exclusively in the classroom, and in some sense my lack of L1 knowledge was helpful because it forced students to communicate with me in English. My caveat was referring to your statement “It happens every minute of class, every day, because the class is conducted in the target language. Students ‘pass’ when they understand and properly respond (in the target language).” I was interpreting it too strictly, I think. I noticed your link to Randall Buth’s blog; are you also familiar with Christophe Rico of Polis Jerusalem? He teaches exclusively in Greek from day 1.

      • Stephen, what a great experience! Maybe we could interview you sometime for the blog about your EFL teaching? As for Rico, I am familiar with him. I have a post planned on his Polis grammar, as well as his use of Erasmian pronunciation and his teaching in Rome and Jerusalem. He came to the states last year and I think he even lectured near me at University of North Texas. Unfortunately, I did not make it to his lecture or get to meet him, although we’ve emailed a bit. He’s on my list of people I email when I can’t figure out how to say something in Koine 🙂

      • arthad says:

        Daniel, I’d be happy to be interviewed if you’d like to do that. Yeah, I think you and Rico would have a lot to talk about. Greek didn’t become a living language for me until I took his course in Rome.

  3. Patrick Brown says:

    Thank you for your boldness in these posts. And thank you for your efforts. It’s exciting to me that you are actually getting to teach with this method. As you probably know, there are many people opposed to this method. Could you share some of the common critiques that come against this method, and your responses? Also, do you know of any other American institutions that are using this method to teach Greek?

    • Patrick, thanks for reading and commenting! I have a bunch of posts planned that will deal with critiques of the method. The current series is meant to deal with the most common critique: that there’s no need to speak/hear Greek since we just want to be able to read it. Most other critiques of communicative/natural approaches have been dealt with more than adequately by Second Language Acquisition experts who have been unanimous in advocating the use of oral/aural approaches to teach modern languages for the past century or so. It is only concerning the “dead” languages that we still have any debate about the best way to teach.
      As for other institutions in the US, I again plan to post on this in upcoming weeks, but I do not currently know of any institutions. I do know that Nyack had some adjuncts at one time teaching this way, and that several schools are looking into it: Fresno Pacific (already, Hebrew is taught communicatively there), Abilene Christian, perhaps Mid-Atlantic Christian University? Also Paula Saffire at Butler University incorporates communicative approaches. I will try to get more complete info when I compose my full-length post on the issue.

  4. James Tucker says:

    Hey Daniel,

    Some stimulating thoughts here that I hope prod various schools and pedagogues to consider their biblical language teaching methods. While my degree doesn’t come from a school that adopts a complete immersion method, I was fortunate enough to experience Greek and Hebrew training through various means of production, listening, reading, and translation. What I mean by production is producing and speaking/writing sentences whose grammaticality was congruent with the extant linguistic locutions of Classical Greek, and likewise with Biblical Hebrew. The requirements were predominately in the format of compositions. We rarely ever conducted class explicitly in L2, although questions of semantics would often surface questions of syntactic ambiguities (e.g., if I composed a temporal adjunctive clause with an articular + infinitive, how would it be different, if at all, than a genitive absolute? etc.). The compositions were tough, but at the end of the process I was convinced that it was the most growth that I had encountered in my being able to think in L2 (I will forgo the philosophical question that is assumed here, namely, do we actually think in any language, or stated differently, does thought precede language).

    We also were examed on our ability to read audibily, and most of our exams were passages of which we had not previously translated. Of course, there were other exams as you list above, namely, a prescribed range for the student to focus on and then later asked analytical questions of aforesaid text. I however am dubious to the benefits of a program that is entirely one or the other, and whether one is predominated over another is indicative to one’s assumption of what language is. That is to say whether Language (notice the capital) is natural or formal—or even whether the two are intransigent or transigent. (A good resource to consult on this issue is Michael Losonsky’s LInguistic Turns in Modern Philosophy).

    Out of the options that currently exist for learning the biblical languages, I would choose again the school of which my degree is granted. I’ve not completed seminary as of yet, and I must say I’ve grown very bored with the seminary in many respects, most notably, due to the lack of linguistic erudition and pedagogical methods in language classes. I have a near perfect eidetic memory and it’s nothing to look at list of words to ace a translation exam or vocabulary exam. It’s difficult to pay thousands of dollars for what is, ironically, reducing my understanding of Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic rather than increasing my facility in L2.

    • James, thanks for the comment! You are right to point out that composition leads to a much greater level of acquisition than just passive reading. That’s one reason a lot of the old Greek scholars (and a lot of Classics scholars even today) had such a better grasp of the language than do NT Greek teachers today: they did a lot of composition, accompanied by wide reading. BTW, are you the same James Tucker I taught at Southeastern?

      • James Tucker says:

        Yes, the same. I didn’t mention so for I was unsure if you would remember. That was a huge class, and I dare not be presumptive your recollecting my attending a class nearly eight years ago.

        I didn’t remain at Southeastern. I transferred to a different school soon after taking New Testament Survey. I didn’t mention the school in the post, for it wasn’t pertinent to the point and narrative of which I was sharing. I just wanted to give some testimony to the benefits of compositions and audible readings, etc.

        Hope to see you at SBL. 🙂

  5. Brian Roden says:

    My wife is a native Spanish speaker. Sometimes she’ll ask me what a certain English word she encountered means. Many times my question back to her is “How was it used? What was the rest of the phrase?” Because, as you say, the translation of a single word depends on the context given by the words around it.

    • Brian, Thanks for commenting and for the helpful illustration. I find that the students who most intuitively grasp my philosophy of language (and language teaching) are those who are either bilingual themselves, or are related to someone bilingual. It clears up a lot of misconceptions about how language and meaning work, and what it means to “know” a language. I am planning a post at some time in the future on my mother-in-law who is German and did not learn English until she was 21 and came to America.

  6. Paul D. says:

    I know of a few language programs for Ancient Greek that teach it as a living language and use a communicative approach. One is the excellent audio-based Assimil series with its “Le Grec ancien” course.

  7. Pingback: The Dirty Truth About Most New Testament Greek Classes | Greek Language and Linguistics

  8. Jose Diaz says:

    Hello Professor Daniel Streett,
    I find this is very interesting. I am highly interested in teaching Greek some day. I came to the United States when I was 15 and I learned English as a Second Language. I speak fluent in English and Spanish. I am a bilingual teacher teaching in English and Spanish every day. I have a Masters in Education, with concentration in Bilingual and ESL education. I am currently working on the MDiv. equivalency and looking to apply for the PhD in New Testament. I would like to be able to apply some of the methods used for Teaching English as a Second language into the teaching and learning of the Biblical Languages. I look forward to reading more about your ideas.

    • Jose, thanks for writing in! You are exactly the kind of person we need teaching Greek, because you understand what it means to read, hear, write and think in a second language. Most Greek professors have never experienced what it’s like to internalize a second language and are therefore content to translate and analyze.

      • Jose Diaz says:

        Thank you for the encouragement. I hope I can contribute in the area of teaching and learning the Greek language. I am actually writing a handbook which includes the four domains: Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. Thus, I promotes a Whole Language Approach. I hope I can find a publisher once is ready.

  9. Pingback: A Standardized Test for Communicative Koine Greek (Needed Resources) | καὶ τὰ λοιπά

  10. χαιρε, שלום

    Excellent points. I really find your approach to Greek learning refreshing. I am slowly adding communicative approaches to enhance and extend my personal study of ancient Greek and Hebrew, as well as Latin, including composition. I find it is really helpful. For Greek, for example, I am working on a set of PowerPoints to teach the numbers 1-10 with audio and visuals, nearly all in Koine Greek (modern pronunciation.) It teaches the number words in context, in phrases such as μια ερυθρα σφαιρα.

    I would like to do this approach to start studying beginning Aramaic and Syriac also. I found some free audio-visual aids for beginning Syriac online (the modern dialect). Do you know of anything similar for ancient Aramaic using SLA methods being developed (preferably with free samples) and available online?

    Dewayne Dulaney

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