About the Series
This is part 3 in a series of posts laying out the problems with typical Koine Greek teaching methods and proposing a reformation in pedagogy. Part 1 talked about what it means to read Greek or any other language. Part 2 talked about the reality of what goes on in most traditional Greek teaching and testing.
In this post, I want to ask, what level of proficiency in Greek have most Greek professors reached themselves?
A Test for Greek Professors
In November, 2008, I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on teaching Greek communicatively. As an experiment, I began my presentation by passing out a quiz for attendees to take. I’m guessing it was the first time that had ever happened! Attendance was pretty good–around 30 audience members. Here’s the quiz. See how you can do:
Write the Greek word/phrase for the following common English words or phrases:
1. Yes ______________
2. Chair or Seat ______________
3. Ball ______________
4. Cat ______________
5. Monkey ______________
6. Nine ______________
7. Red ______________
8. Cold ______________
9. Nose ______________
10. To jump ______________
Bonus: “Hello, how are you?” “Goodbye!”_______________________________
What? Not so hot? Don’t feel too bad; you’re not alone. Now, keep in mind that most of those who attend ETS are faculty at colleges or seminaries. There are also a large number of doctoral students, and a smattering of other graduate students. And, only people who currently teach Greek or hope to teach Greek would want to attend a paper on Greek pedagogy. So, my audience was made up of mostly Greek professors and doctoral-level students who had probably taken, on average, 4-7 years of Greek by now and some of whom had been teaching Greek for 20-30 years by now.
After the audience had finished, I collected their quizzes. The average “grade” was 0.4 out 10 correct. Most testees could not answer any of the questions correctly, although they tried. The highest grade was 2 out of 10. Now, this audience included many scholars who had written best selling Greek textbooks and grammars. Of course, I won’t name names!
So, let’s analyze the quiz and results. First, the quiz. All of these words are the kind of items that you would encounter in the first week of an ESL/EFL class: numbers, colors, animals, weather, basic actions, question/answer words, conversational openers and closers, etc. If you have ever taken Spanish, French or another modern language, you could probably give answers to many of the quiz questions in those languages.
Now, the results: out of all the audience, two or three were able to write the word for “yes,” a couple got the word for “nine,” one got a semi-correct answer on “chair” (he put θρόνος, while I think καθέδρα would be the default), and one got pretty close on “Hello” (putting χαίρειν, the literary greeting, instead of χαῖρε, the more common spoken salutation). You can see the correct answers at the bottom of the post.
What would you think of a German professor who couldn’t count to ten in his language? A French professor who did not know “bonjour” or “au revoir?” A Spanish professor who didn’t know rojo or el gato?
Greek Professors Admit: They Don’t Know Greek!
I can hear the howls of protest: “Some of these words on your quiz don’t even appear in the Bible!” Ah, so you only care to know the tiny slice of the Greek language that appears in the Bible? Every 4-year old Greek child would score 10/10+the bonus on this quiz. Is it too much to ask those who teach Greek for a living to strive for the vocabulary of a 4-year old? BTW, of the 10 items, only 1 does not appear in the Bible (ball), though 2 items only appear once (monkey in 2 Chron 9:21, cat only in Ep.Jer. 1:21). The rest are not rare at all. And in terms of wider Greek literature, ball, monkey and cat are not rare. Here are the word counts from the TLG: σφαῖρα – 6157x, πίθηκος – 766x, αἴλουρος – 356x. That’s not counting all the compound words where they would make up a part of the word.
But, if you are still skeptical, let me relate to you the nearly universal response that I receive from Greek professors when I advocate for a communicative method. Many are very receptive to, even enthusiastic about, the possibilities in such a method. But, without exception, I hear from them: “I simply don’t know Greek well enough to teach it this way!” “I could never carry on a whole class in Greek!” And so on.
Give these profs credit. At least they’re being honest and open about the problem. We Greek profs can parse ‘till the cows come home. We’re experts at filling out paradigm charts. We love to explain the historical role of the digamma in irregular verbs. We can nerd on an on about proclitics and enclitics (ok, maybe not, but you get my point ). What we lack is simple proficiency in Greek.
Perhaps you still think the emperor has clothes. Perhaps you think knowledge of basic vocabulary, or the bare minimum of communicative competency is too much to ask. “We are trained to read Greek, not speak it or compose in it!” you say. Very well: How many Greek professors can read Josephus, Plutarch, or Λόγγος for pleasure (οὔπω ἐγώ)? How many can read Aesop’s fables without constant resort to the lexicon (see, for example this one, which uses one of our quiz items!)? The sad answer: οὐ πολλοί. Could the reason be that they, too, were trained in the “chop, analyze and translate” school of Greek? I think so.
And, admitting the problem is the first step to finding a solution . . .
1. Yes ναί
2. Chair or Seat ἡ καθέδρα
3. Ball ἡ σφαῖρα
4. Cat ὁ/ἡ αἴλουρος
5. Monkey ὁ πίθηκος
6. Nine ἐννέα
7. Red κόκκινος or ἐρυθρός
8. Cold ψυχρός
9. Nose ἡ ῥίς or ὁ μυκτήρ
10. To jump (ἀνα)πηδᾶν
Bonus: “Hello, how are you?” “Goodbye!” χαῖρε. πῶς ἔχεις; ἔρρωσο.