Greek Professors: Do They Know Greek? (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 3)

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!”_______________________________

The Results
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.

Baffled by Greek Teachers

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 Smile). What we lack is simple proficiency in Greek.

A Greek Scholar Trying to Read Philo!

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 . . .

The Key
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.

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30 Responses to Greek Professors: Do They Know Greek? (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 3)

  1. That was a great ETS presentation. I remember speaking with one of the Greek textbook writers (who will remain nameless) and asking him about what he thought about that approach and he responded that he liked it. I then asked so why aren’t we moving towards this methodology in the seminaries? He said it would be to hard to change the system that is already in place and that it would not be realistic right now… aka “I want everyone to keep buying my textbooks.” Sad day.

  2. David: I, too, spoke with the same author. He was very cordial, positive and receptive. And, in subsequent months, I received an email from another textbook author who had been in the presentation. He was very interested in communicatively teaching and requested any materials that I could furnish him with. So, there is some reason to hope, I think!

  3. arthad says:

    Exactly. Even if _reading_ the language is one’s only goal, internalizing the language through production is the best way to go about it. (I love the quiz idea, by the way.)

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  5. mgvh@ltsg says:

    Thanks for writing this series on teaching Greek. I am teaching Greek at a seminary right now, and I have asked my students to read your posts. There is much you say with which I agree, but you are making some assumptions that do not fit my situation. Back in the day when I was learning Greek at seminary (~1980), the Greek requirement was basically 2 years worth with follow-up in required exegetical courses. The result? I would estimate that at least 90% of pastors were no longer using Greek within 5 years of graduation from seminary. Why? They never achieved a level of competence to allow for truly “reading” Greek. In the seminary where I teach now, the Greek requirement has been reduced to about 1 year with follow-up in in required exegetical courses. There is absolutely no way I can teach students to “read” Greek. I have, therefore, had to change my goals. I am now teaching Greek so that students can use Greek tools and evaluate English translations. This means that I try to create a foundation of Greek vocabulary and grammar, but that I am reducing the amount of vocab memory and analysis to a minimum. Instead, I focus on grammatical significance, syntax, using lexical tools, and learning ways of working with the Greek text in order to determine why English translations vary so significantly. This also means, as you might guess, that Bible software becomes very important. I encourage students to use software about 2/3 of the way through the course. This also means that my quizzes and tests (apart from some foundational memory aspects) are usually open resource (i.e., they can use book, notes, software), based on biblical texts, and ask the students to compare English translations and then consult at the Greek to analyze what is going on.
    I’d love to think I could use a more ‘communicative’ approach (though we do sing Greek songs, recite the Lord’s Prayer…), but given the time constraints imposed by our curriculum, I am taking an approach that I think (and early feedback is tending to confirm) will allow students to “use” Greek for the rest of their careers.

    • Mark, thanks for reading and commenting! I have enjoyed your Bible and Tech blog in the past–very helpful.

      I think you are probably in a typical situation at your seminary. The Christian college I teach at has a similar requirement: 1 yr of Greek (i.e. 6 credit hrs). So, you have adopted, as have many others, more of a tools approach. I think that’s a good thing, and have advocated for that at my own institution. I have a post planned on the way that the newer tools have made grammar-translation approaches more or less obsolete. But, I think it’s a good thing only in the sense that we will no longer be talking about “learning Greek” when we are doing nothing of the sort. I’d rather that schools decided to beef up their requirement and adopt an immersive approach!
      Also, I have to say, I’m not really convinced that the kind of “use” students will be able to engage in after a year of a tools approach is really worth much. In my experience, and that of many others I’ve talked to, it gives students just enough knowledge to be dangerous. I’m sure you warn your students in all sorts of ways about this, but, as you know, what we teach and what students take away are often two very different things. 🙂

  6. Neill Brown says:


    Thank you for these engaging posts. You’ve already spurred on a few of my friends here at Southern Seminary and elsewhere to approach Greek communicatively.

    I was wondering if you knew how Greek (and Hebrew) pedagogy came to adopt the grammar translation method. I’ve heard that the Latin grammar schools were to blame, but after looking into it I discovered that the earliest grammar schools not only encouraged teaching in the target language, but punished students who spoke anything else! Is defense of G/T simply a way to justify (or ignore) the regression that has taken place? Thank you for your time.

    • Neill, thanks for reading and commenting! As you have discovered, in the early days, G-T methods were almost always accompanied by a requirement for oral production and written composition. Eventually, in an attempt to streamline the process (I would guess), the oral components dropped out. In the twentieth century, all other foreign language teaching moved on to direct method, natural approach, etc., out of necessity, since there was no other way to produce fluent language users. Greek, Hebrew, and Latin stayed stuck in the 19th century, since they were not subject to the same pressures.
      Re: Latin pedagogy, a fascinating book is Latin: Or, the Empire of a Sign, which recounts how Latin pedagogy went from requiring communicative competency to gradually just focusing on grammatical structures and translation.

  7. Mark Lightman says:

    χαῖρε Δανιελ,

    I just took your quiz. I got them all right. Most of these words I have used on my videos or on posts on A few years ago, I think I would have gotten very few of them.

    καλὸν ποιεῖς.

    • Μάρκε, οὐ θαυμάζω, ὅτι ἀνήρ σόφιστος εἶ. 🙂 πρὶν ἢ διδάσκειν με, οὐδενα ἔγνων (παρεκτὸς τοῦ ναὶ καὶ τοῦ ἐννέα). Now, my first year students would ace the quiz after a couple weeks of class.

  8. This has quickly become my favorite blog! I never thought I would say that about a Greek blog.

  9. I am a first year Greek student and I stumbled on your blog (I don’t remember how…probably a Facebook post) and I am enjoying these articles a lot. I have since shared them with my Greek professor with the caveat that he not take them “personally” as though I am criticizing his methods. I think there is some great information contained in these articles though it is difficult for me to comment extensively (as to the methodology) at this time in my Greek career. I am looking forward to future articles on this topic. Frankly, I want to LEARN the language — not just pass a course. If these concepts you are presenting help me do that then I could not be more thrilled.

    • Thanks for commenting, William! Keep me up to date on your προκοπή. I will eventually be getting into some posts with practical steps for incorporating communicative methods into your studies.

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  11. Simon Day says:

    Not only did Mark Lightman get 10, his constant chiding on the bgreek list is the only result I got four, so I should probably donate him those as well to bring him up to 14.

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  13. Barry Hofstetter says:

    I got 90% or so. Having read some of Aesop’s fables recently really helped. For some reason, though, I just drew a blank on the word for “nose.” I also used a different word for “jump,” ἄλλομαι, and I misspelled αἴλουρος as αἴλευρος. Partial credit, at least, O generous professor?

    Very much appreciate this series. I may have more substantive comments later, but a lot of good food for thought.

    • Barry, εὖγε! ἅλλομαι definitely works instead of πηδᾶν. As far I have been able to tell, they’re completely synonymous–probably one of those things where we’d need a native speaker to tell us when to use which. As for your misspelling of our friend, Felis domesticus, I can only blame the abomination that is Erasmian pronunciation. 🙂

      • Barry Hofstetter says:

        Actually, not Erasmian. My Classics Greek prof for intro taught us what he proposed as “linguistically correct” pronunciation, and it was pretty good, according to the “Greek Historical Linguistics” course that I took in grad school. In this case, it was just remembering the word wrong!

  14. Mike Aubrey says:

    Well, I would have gotten 4 right plus the bonus question…that’s okay, but I need to keep working at it. Currently, learning is more on hold as it should be simply because my conversation partner (my wife) is too busy focused on writing her thesis.

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  18. Raymond Van Leeuwen says:

    We met at SBL. These posts are very helpful and informative–even for a Hebrew guy! Keep up the great work! Ray

  19. willhartbrown says:


    I know that I am quite late on this post, but I do have some questions. First of all, I am working through through John Dobson’s “Learn New Testament Greek”. Once I work through it, where do you suggest I move towards in order to be able to be fluent in Greek and read any text? Additionally, have you heard of Robert Stallman (Northwest University)? He was my Hebrew Prof. and has often suggested that Hebrew professors should be able to do a similar thing. Our classes were actually structured in a sort of discussion style in Hebrew.

    I hope you respond soon and thanks for your time!

  20. dockdweller says:


    First, forgive this 2016 post to this old topic which I know some do not like.

    I’ve stumbled here to your site for the second time, randomly while searching for different things. So, while only tangentially interested in the specific topic of Greek learning, maybe it’s appropriate that I feel a desire to ask a question.

    I see it’s been almost 5 yrs since you wrote this and the rest of the series which I’ve read. I’m just wondering if you have anything you would care to share by way of follow-up..anything developed since then etc.

    Thank you

  21. Brett Mahlen says:

    I am in total agreement with these three posts. I am grateful that professors in Greek and Latin are both coming to realize this. This Latin guy gets it: Also, David Noe, Classics professor at Calvin College gets it as well; he does spoken Latin conferences.

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