About the Series
This is part 5 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. Part 4 argued that to solve this problem, we must establish a foundation of listening and speaking skills upon which to develop reading fluency.
In this post, I want talk about the advantages that adult language learners have over children, as well as how long it takes to acquire proficiency in a language, and why this means we need to rethink our Greek curricula.
People often think children have an advantage over adults in language learning. Research does not support this. Children do have an advantage in one area: while adults will almost all have a foreign accent if they acquire their second language after puberty, children who acquire L2 before puberty will usually have no discernible accent. But, for our purposes, that’s a pretty minor advantage. So, why do kids succeed so often where adults fail? Much of it has to do with the affective filter, i.e. the “fear factor.” Kids play in the language while adults grind away, afraid to make any mistakes or to look like a fool. Kids venture into the unknown while adults stay in the comfort zone. But, given the right context, where the affective filter is less of an issue, adults will actually outperform kids, especially in reading and writing, which are more familiar tasks to them.
How Long to Learn Greek?
How long will it take to acquire Greek at a reasonable level of proficiency—one that would allow you to read widely for pleasure and have a “feel” for the language? Lucky for us, the Foreign Service Institute, which provides language training for diplomats, has developed a 5-level scale of proficiency, as well as an estimate of the amount of time it typically takes to reach a certain level.
The FSI scale goes from S-1 Elementary Proficiency, basically a glorified tourist, to S-5 Native Proficiency, which is complete fluency. Their timetable tells you how long it will take to reach the third level, S-3 Professional Working Proficiency, where you can:
- participate effectively and easily in conversations on the full spectrum of usual topics
- completely comprehend normal-speed speech
- have a big enough vocabulary that you don’t have to grope for words
- avoid errors that interfere with understanding
Does your Greek measure up to that? Yeah . . . mine neither!
So, how long does it take to get to level 3? Well, FSI groups languages into three categories according to how hard they are for English speakers to learn. Thus, Category I includes Spanish, French and German—which are very close to English. Category III languages are really the tough ones: Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, etc.
Now, for Category I languages, FSI estimates you need 24 weeks of class to get to a Level 3 proficiency. I can hear you say, “24 weeks—that’s about the equivalent of a year-long seminary course (12 weeks per semester x 2)!” Not so fast, there, cowboy. When FSI says 24 weeks of class, they don’t mean 24 weeks of a class where only 3 hours a week are spent in class (i.e. 72 hrs overall). Indeed, they provide an hour equivalent to their 24 weeks: 600 hours of class time, where class is mostly immersive in nature. Go back and read that again: 600 hours! That’s 25 hours per week in class, or 5hrs per day. Well, that’s what you do when you’re serious about actually learning a language! Greek students are slackers.
Now, that’s for Category I, which are the easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy languages. If you want to be a diplomat in Riyadh, you need to plan on 2200 class hours (88 weeks), and about half of that needs to be in Saudi Arabia. Well, what about Koine Greek? FSI puts modern Greek in Category II, which requires 1100 hours, and I think Koine would probably fit in the same category.
So, 1100 hours of class time, mostly immersive, to achieve a Level 3 fluency. That’s the equivalent of 366 weeks of class in a 3-credit seminary class, or the equivalent of 13 years (26 semesters). And no seminary actually uses that class-time to immerse students in the language.
This should give pause to everyone who thinks that adopting a living language approach will solve all our problems. It won’t, if the new wine of the natural approach is put in the old wineskins of the 3-credit, 12 week seminary curriculum.
All hope is not lost, though! In my next couple posts, I’ll explore ways that seminaries and colleges could actually begin to move toward an immersive, FSI-style language program.