About the Series
This is part 6 in a series of posts laying out the problems with typical Koine Greek teaching methods and proposing a reformation in pedagogy. In the last post, I discussed the amount of time it takes to gain proficiency in a second language—around 1100 hours of immersive class time, depending on the difficulty of the language.
Obviously, that doesn’t fit very comfortably into any seminary or college’s curriculum. So, if we are convinced that fluency is a goal worth pursuing, we need to think of more feasible ways we can create this type of intensive and prolonged immersion. Before I lay out some of those strategies, though, I want to discuss a growing trend in Greek pedagogy and how I think it affects the movement toward communicative teaching.
The Rise of the Tools Approach
In recent years, many seminaries and Bible colleges have downgraded their language requirements, some even eliminating them entirely. I think we can all agree that’s probably not a good thing (I’m preaching to the choir, right?). But, other institutions have taken a middle way. Instead of requiring students to take the traditional Greek/Hebrew classes, where vocabulary and paradigms are memorized, and parsing, diagramming and translation are emphasized, these schools have moved toward a “tools” approach.
The tools approach aims to introduce students to the way the ancient languages work—declensions, conjugations, endings, participles, word order, tense, voice, mood, etc.—but without requiring lots of memorization of these forms, or intensive translation. The goal is to produce students who may not necessarily be able to parse/translate, but who know how to use tools that will parse/translate for them. You don’t need a whole year to teach students to use Greek tools. In fact, in one semester you could probably cover the basic tools for both Hebrew and Greek.
Why the Tools Approach?
I think several things have led to this approach becoming popular:
- Space in a seminary/college curriculum is always tight, and Biblical studies classes have tended to get edged out by fields like practical theology, counseling, etc. which a) have increased in popularity as subjects of academic study, b) draw more students in than the languages do, and c) seem to provide more (at least immediate) payoff than language/exegesis courses.
- Bible software has become much more common and accessible. Any student can afford and probably will at some point purchase BibleWorks, Logos, Accordance, or any of the other packages available. Numerous free websites also perform many of the same basic tasks.
- Faculty and administration realize that Greek courses are dreaded by most students; so, they embrace the tools approach as something that takes away the pain by eliminating all the memorization work.
- Faculty realize that most students quickly forget the morphology and grammar covered in their Greek classes and end up depending on tools or Bible software for all of their subsequent work. (In fact, savvy Greek students learn to depend on it while still in their grammar classes!)
- Several new textbooks have been published which provide the teacher with an easy-to-follow plan for covering the bare minimum of Greek/Hebrew and introducing the students to the tools. See, e.g. Bill Mounce’s Greek for the Rest of Us, Lee Fields’ Hebrew for the Rest of Us, Sitzer/Finley’s How Biblical Languages Work, or the many “Greek/Hebrew for preachers” type of books.
Implications for Greek Pedagogy
You might think at this point that I would launch into a jeremiad against the tools approach. That may in fact be appropriate, especially given the recent horror stories related by Larry Hurtado about NT PhD graduates with apparently no Greek beyond a tools approach introduction. But, I want to look at the glass as half full. Here’s why: the tools approach recognizes the utter bankruptcy of traditional teaching methods. I mean, there’s really not much point in solely learning to parse and translate when software can do it faster, more accurately, and without all the soul-killing and brain-frying rote memorization.
Honesty Is Such a Lonely Word
So, the tools approach gives us an honest look at Greek pedagogy. It makes it clear that the goal is not fluency or proficiency in any meaningful sense. After you take a Greek class that uses the tools approach, you won’t be able to read Greek, but you will know that going into the class. In a traditional approach, you’re told that you’ll be able to read Greek, and then when that doesn’t pan out, you’re told to work more on vocab memorization and parsing, and guilted into feeling lazy for not spending hours in such mind-numbing misery. The traditional approach says, “We’re learning the language!” but then teaches students only about the language (metalanguage, historical linguistics, translation theory, etc.). The tools approach says, “We’re not learning the language, just about the language.” I prefer the honest approach.
Make Room for the Natural Approach!
So, the first step to reforming Greek pedagogy is to stop lying to ourselves about what we’re teaching and how effective it is, that is, to be clear about our goals and whether or not we’re achieving them. Paradoxically, then, I think the shift to the tools approach actually creates a space for natural approaches to take root and flourish, with fluency as the goal.
Here’s how I see that happening. We (Greek faculty) can tell students that if their main goal is just to read and understand commentaries, to be able to tell what antecedent a pronoun is referring to, or whether the “you” in their English Bible is plural or singular, then they can take a one-semester tools class and be satisfied. If, on the other hand, they are planning to be scholars, Bible translators, etc., and really want to learn Greek—i.e. to the point where they could read freely and widely for pleasure and gain a feel for the language—then they need to pursue a communicative track that aims for fluency. “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
I suspect that those for whom studying the Bible is a top priority will eagerly embrace a rigorous, demanding, and even time-intensive immersive approach when the opportunity is offered to them. So, in my next post, I’ll focus on what such an approach would look like in the context of a traditional seminary education.