About the Series
In the last post, I discussed two typical modern language programs and their requirements. The point was to show how typical seminary requirements for Greek/Hebrew pale in comparison, as modern language programs a) require 50 credits worth of immersive classes, b) enjoy a support structure that includes student clubs and language labs, and c) often include a year spent abroad in a country where the target language is spoken. This more than meets the 1100 hours the FSI thinks necessary to achieve level 3 fluency in a language.
In this post, I want to talk about some practical steps that seminaries and Bible colleges might take to incorporate immersive approaches into their curricula and move toward the level of rigor with which modern language departments approach their own fields of study.
Here I offer eight thoughts regarding curriculum. In my next post, I’ll discuss how schools can develop a support structure for such an approach.
Just Do It! Most seminaries’ cash cow is their MDiv program, usually a 3-year track. The colleges I described in the last post had 4 years to work with. So, why can’t seminaries at least require 75% of what the colleges require (that would equal around 36 hours of a language)? They can, of course, if they want to. But, most seminaries simply don’t see fluency in Greek or Hebrew as something worth striving for (or even possible). For Bible colleges with 4-year programs, or schools like Dallas Seminary that only offer a 4-year ThM (i.e. no MDiv), there’s really no excuse, except that fluency is not viewed as a goal. As soon as you start to see fluency as a worthwhile goal, you will do what’s necessary to achieve it. Don’t forget, it wasn’t that long ago (during the reign of the grammar-translation method) that people thought it was impossible for an American college to have a German major where the courses would not be taught in English!
- Replace the Current Requirements. In a modern language major, only 2-3 semesters of class will focus on the language itself. The other credits in the major are literature and history courses taught in the language. If you apply this to a seminary curriculum, once you establish a basic level of fluency in Greek, all subsequent Greek grammar and NT classes could be taught in Greek, thus steadily increasing students’ fluency. Imagine if Dallas Seminary’s required 28-36 hrs of Greek/NT were all conducted in Greek!
- Make it Optional. If you think aiming for fluency as part of the standard MDiv is unrealistic, then simply give students an option to take a language-focused track. For example, what if we started by requiring only PhD students in New or Old Testament to go through the intensive immersion track? That by itself would totally change the face of the discipline! Then, we could go on to let MDiv or ThM students choose a more intensive and perhaps slightly longer degree plan where they would major in a Biblical language. I think this would be especially attractive to those who wanted to go on for PhDs in the field, or those who planned to go into Bible translation. Students who plan to pastor will follow when they see what their peers are accomplishing.
- Convert Homework Time to Class Time. Traditional Greek classes have 3hrs in class per week, but expect students to spend many hours outside of class translating and working through the material. Most schools use the formula that for every hour in class, 2-3 hours of homework is to be expected. Thus a 3hr course would have 9hrs/wk of homework. Of course, this doesn’t usually pan out, but what if we could just convert some of that homework time, say a third of it (=3hrs), to class time? We’d then have 6hrs per week of class time for a 3 credit course. Too much work for the teachers, you say? I agree, so pay them more! Or, just require some of the extra hours to be spent in a language lab (more on that concept in the next post).
Recognize the Untapped Market. Administrators can begin to view students more as consumers of a product than as ministers and scholars in training. They think that if they increase the rigor of their program, their “consumer base” will take their dollars elsewhere. That may be true in some cases, but rigor and excellence can be made into selling points. What’s more, they attract the sort of “consumer” you actually want! There’s a market out there for rigorous language training, and it will only grow when such training actually becomes widely available and known. Students are almost unanimous in their love for immersive approaches because they are stress-free and fun. Conversely, they usually dread traditional Biblical language classes. So, seminaries should realize that they can replace a very weak product with a very strong one and reach an—as yet—untapped market.
- Make it a Summer Experience. There’s a reason missionary organizations, foreign exchange programs, and government language training centers all use intensive immersion programs where students are focused on acquiring the language and nothing else: they work! One way to squander class time in a language is to spread it out over three or four years, as typical college programs do. Groups like the Goethe Institut specialize in intensive courses that last 8 weeks and meet 5 days a week for 4-5 hours a day, resulting in upper-intermediate level fluency. So, what if seminaries just required an 8-week language immersion during the summer, before students began their MDiv? Then, once the degree started, the student could take Biblical studies courses that would be conducted in the language and thereby continue to advance in fluency.
Don’t Overestimate the Time Required. This may seem strange since I’ve been arguing above for more time for immersion. Well, that’s important, but think about this: if you take a government language program, the 1100 hours requirement is designed to get you to almost total fluency, so that you can discuss, basically mistake-free, any subject with anybody. Simple reading fluency in the language, though, comes much earlier! And, that, to me, should really be the goal of a basic language program, to get the student to the point where she can read widely for pleasure. This is when language skills and vocabulary take a quantum leap forward (see Krashen’s Power of Reading). I suspect it is realistic to expect students to be reasonably close to this level after an 8 week intensive immersion experience, especially if that is followed up by continued immersion in classes (e.g. exegetical courses).
- Farm it Out. Obviously, no school right now has a faculty that could teach an eight-week immersion course in Ancient Greek. Perhaps it could be outsourced to a school that specializes in this type of training (as David Booth recommends). Randall Buth, of course, has been doing this for years, but he’s in Israel, which makes it less than feasible for most people. We need language centers in Boston, LA, Chicago, and Dallas!
It may seem like a pipe dream now, but all that needs to happen is for one mid-size institution to wholeheartedly adopt the goal of putting an immersive approach in place over the course of the next 4-5 years. Other schools will follow suit when they see the results, and scholars will be trained who can populate seminary and college faculties, bringing their expectations and methods along with them. We are presently in a groundwork-laying phase. Now is the time to develop resources and curricula. Once we do that, adopting an immersive approach will begin to seem like a realistic option for seminary decision-makers.