About the Series
This is part 4 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. Part 3 argued that Greek professors, too, suffer from the ineffectiveness of the traditional method, and as a result are seriously lacking in their own grasp of Greek.
In this post, I want to argue that an oral/aural approach to Greek is necessary if we want to achieve true reading proficiency (as defined in part 1).
The Four Skills
All modern language teaching aims at cultivating proficiency in four skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Recent pedagogy has also stressed cultural knowledge as a key component of fluency.
Learning Your First Language
Now, when we think about how we learned our first language, it should be obvious that these skills do not emerge simultaneously, but that some in fact depend on others. Consider: From the time you were in the womb to about 1 yr old, you were listening, listening, listening. And, you eventually started comprehending and responding physically. Your mommy said, “No!” and you stopped trying to stick your finger in the outlet. Your daddy said, “Open wide!” and you opened your mouth to receive food. (This is the essence of TPR, by the way.) You were immersed in the language continuously, although only a
little was comprehensible to you.
Around 13-18 months, you started speaking. Just single words at first, but you knew what you were saying and they had meaning and corresponded to things. Of course, as you’re beginning to speak, you continue to be immersed in the language, listening all the time and comprehending more and more. In fact, all of your listening and comprehending is the basis for your speech production.
By the time you turned two, you probably had a passive vocabulary of 75-200 words and you were making sentences (2 or 3 word sentences). Or, if you were like me, you had just completed writing your first theological treatise on Hegelian metaphysics. J/k!
Then, you learn to ask, “What’s that?” and your active and passive vocabulary just skyrockets. You’re starting to map your world in the language. And, of course, you continue to be immersed in the language and receive continuous feedback.
Reading and Writing
Reading is the next skill to develop. Around 3, you could probably read single words, and by 5-6 you were reading short sentences and stories. By 6-7, you were actually using writing to communicate (as opposed to just putting letters on a page).
The Oral/Aural Basis
Think about what starting to read entails. You have been immersed in the language for 4-5 years, listening and speaking continuously. Then, you learn to convert marks on a page into sounds. But pronouncing words is not reading! Reading involves recognizing the words that you have pronounced. That is, reading is a form of hearing. Even adults read this way, by subvocalizing (i.e. vocalizing the words silently in their mind; speed reading approaches attempt to eliminate this). True reading is only possible when the words you’re reading have already been acquired through hearing and speaking them! This is the oral/aural basis for reading, and it’s why Johnny Seminarian can’t read Greek for pleasure or with any meaningful level of fluency, and likely never will. You can’t read if you don’t already know the language, i.e. have it internalized. And you can’t internalize it apart from hearing it and speaking it (what about deaf people? see here).
The Reader’s Paradox
You may have heard of the hedonist’s paradox. Well, this is the reader’s paradox. When you seek to gain the ability to read only, you will never acquire it. It is only when you seek to learn the language (i.e. communicative proficiency) that you will find yourself able to read for pleasure and without the perpetual grinding that’s a sign of the end times.
The Backwardness of Traditional Pedagogy
Now you can see how backwards traditional pedagogy is. Thinking we will take the shortcut, we try to teach you to read first. But, without the oral/aural foundation that brings internalization, you are stuck translating rather than reading. Truly I say unto you, unless you become like a little child and immerse yourself in listening to and speaking Greek, you will never enter the kingdom of reading. There is no shortcut to fluency.
In the next post, we will look at advantages that adult language learners have over children, as well as how long it takes to acquire a language, and why this means we need to rethink our Greek curricula.