How Long, O Lord, Until I Know Greek? (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 5)

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.

Adult Advantages
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.

waitingHow 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.

1100 Hours
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. Smile

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.

Curriculum Change
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.

Next Time
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.

This entry was posted in Greek Pedagogy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How Long, O Lord, Until I Know Greek? (Basics of Greek Pedagogy, pt. 5)

  1. David A Booth says:


    This is a great series.

    I would disagree fairly strongly with one of the suggestions in the link you provided for adult learners:

    “On the other hand, providing opportunities for learners to work together, focusing on understanding rather than producing language, and reducing the focus on error correction can build learners’ self-confidence and promote language learning”.

    Yes, adults need to learn to relax and play with the language but all the research I have seen suggests that PRODUCING the language is essential for effective learning.


    • David, Thanks for the feedback. Don’t hold me responsible for everything in those links! 🙂 The one you’re referring to, in particular, was meant primarily to summarize some of the research on adult language learners. We’re probably on the same page in seeing a prominent role for production in language learning. I think most SLA theorists agree, but would just differ among themselves on how extensive this production should be (short answers, complete sentences, long monologues?) and how soon it should be expected. Requiring production too early and too extensively is a sure way to raise the fear barrier (though there are ways to get around it). BTW, as I read the article, it is not saying there’s no place for production, only that it shouldn’t necessarily be the focus.

  2. Andrew Hebert says:

    I would enjoy getting your thoughts on the benefits of Greek fluency. Let’s say I spend 5-10 (or 13 years, as in your example above) studying and learning the language. My knowledge still wouldn’t compare to the group of experts who have translated NASB, NIV, etc. Is there going to be any further benefit of knowing Greek than I could get by simply reading several translations? After having had only four semesters of Greek, plus several exegesis courses, I find that I can’t do much better than a solid English-language translation. They nail the translation. Why spend 13 years studying in such a way that I can order a cup of coffee in Greek?

    • Andrew, No coffee in Ancient Greece! ἀλλὰ θέλεις οἶνον ὀλίγον; 😉 Also, I think you misunderstood the point of the post. You don’t need 13 years. See the FSI website. They only require ca.40-50 weeks for fairly difficult languages. BTW, you can learn to order a cup of coffee in the first day, but you wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation about very many important topics until you gained some level of fluency.
      I’m not really sure I understand your question about translations, etc. I have no interest in translating the NT into English. My interest is in becoming fluent in the language the NT was written in, so that I can hear the NT and other texts I love the way they were intended to be heard, in their linguistic context.

  3. Andrew Hebert says:

    What I was getting at was that it seems that “to hear the NT and other texts I love the way they were intended to be heard, in their linguistic context” doesn’t benefit much beyond the work that translators and commentators have already done for us, except that it is a cool skill to be able to pick up a Greek NT and read fluently. In terms of practicality, what are the specific benefits to doing this, as opposed to just reading a good English translation? Can you flesh out “the way they were intended to be heard?”

    • Andrew, we probably have very different views on the way languages work. I believe that when texts are translated, there is both meaning added to them and subtracted from them. So, for texts that matter to me a great deal, I prefer them straight. I also don’t believe that most commentators and translators are widely enough read in the languages to truly have a feel for them. Therefore, I don’t want to be dependent upon them; or, I at least want to be able to determine which ones are more dependable and which ones less, since they all differ substantially from one another. I could go on to deal with the oral/aural nature of the NT itself and other topics, but I hope at some point to post separately on them.

  4. Jason Kuo says:

    Thanks for writing these series of posts! I was wondering – will you be touching on how those in non or post-academic environments can employ this type of learning? I’m a year out of my M.Div program, and this sort of method sounds very intriguing, as I’d like to improve and increase my Greek comprehension even in my post-classroom life…

    • Jason, thanks for reading! That’s a good idea for a blog post, or series. I think some of my planned upcoming posts, especially ones of resources that available or needed, will point you in some helpful directions.

  5. Seumas says:

    Just a quick comment to say that it is great to see you blogging.

    • Thanks, Seumas. I’ll probably cover a lot of the same ground you’ve already covered in your posts from a couple years ago. I’ve already put your blog in my blogroll on here, and I’m hoping to have a series soon where I highlight some of the blogs/bloggers who have posted on natural approaches to Greek or Hebrew, such as you.

  6. Jose Diaz says:

    I loved this part. As an ESL instructor, I agree with this research. Adults who know an L1 very well, have advantages over children when learning an L2. The reason for this is that adults bring a lot of knowledge to the table, a fact overlooked, by some instructors. SLA experts call it to transfer their knowledge from L1 to the L2, something that is not being exploited.
    I also agree with the fear factor. Adults sometimes do not want to take risks because of “what will people say if I make a mistake”; a problem which children at young age do not really care a lot. That is why I think it is very important for Instructors of any language to create an environment which is inviting and safe, even if you make mistakes. Thus, the only advantage I see is that children will have a less heavy accent than those of us who have learned a second language as adults, but as I have learned from my SLA professors, “we all have a accent of some sort”. What really counts is the communication. I am sure that people who go after the 1100 or 2200 hours of intensive training do not have the same accent of a native speaker of the target language.

  7. GV says:

    I think that Koine Greek should go into the same FSI classification as Russian (whatever that is.) the noun declensions–and exceptions, grammatical particles and the verb conjugations–especially verbs of motion in imperfective and perfective aspects, seem comparable in difficulty to the weekly (not always pleasant) surprises that I am encountering in Koine Greek.

Leave a Reply to Seumas Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s