Making the Perfect the Enemy of the Good

Suzanne McCarthy of the Bible, Literature and Translation blog has written a lengthy response to my ongoing series on Greek pedagogy. She argues that I am chasing a pipe dream and registers several objections to my proposals thus far. I think these are worth responding to briefly, just to head off some misunderstandings, as well as to address some common arguments against applying communicative methods to ancient languages.

I encourage you to read her post before you read my responses below, as I’ll only be briefly summarizing a few of the points she made. Please also read the responses to her posts, especially those by Stephen Hill (here, here, and here), who has experienced communicative language Greek learning environments and is currently doing graduate work in ESL/EFL. After reading his responses, I almost feel there is no need to write this post, since he made almost all the points I had planned to make!

I want to begin by saying that I really appreciate the interaction and feedback from Suzanne. I’ve enjoyed reading her posts on Bible translation and gender issues in the past and have greatly profited from them. I’m not sure that we are very far apart at all in our views of language, hermeneutics and translation. I also think that these kind of exchanges can only benefit the communicative movement, as they will serve to expose people to its principles and clear up misunderstandings.

So here are four points in response, not in any particular order, though I think the last is the most important and the reason for the title of my post.

1. Learn the Language!
First, I’m not sure Suzanne has read my other posts, or any of my other info on the website since she seems to think I advocate only learning Greek from a “small collection of documents.” I assume she means the NT and perhaps the LXX. Let me assure everyone this is not what I want or advocate. I urge that we learn Greek—the language. Not a tiny, artificially constructed corpus (e.g. the NT) but the whole language of the Hellenistic era. In fact, let me just say right now that, had I lifetimes to spare, they would be expended in polyglottal pursuits. As Τερέντιος would have said, had he spoken the right language: ἄνθρωπος ὤν ἡγοῦμαι οὐδὲν ἀνθρώπινον εἶναι ξένον.

As Suzanne notes, Classics programs are certainly better than seminaries at giving students broad exposure to Greek. However, because they are beholden to a deeply-flawed language teaching philosophy and method, they still fall far short of bringing their students to any meaningful level of fluency. I speak from personal experience having taken wide-ranging Greek courses at Yale, and having seen Classics students “Loeb-ing” their way through their reading (even at the PhD level), then relying on memorization to pass their exams. One can also look at the burgeoning Living Latin movement for further proof that Classicists have become dissatisfied with the efficacy of their pedagogy.

2. Communicative Need
I don’t think Suzanne has rightly represented the idea of communicative need. Stephen Hill has already more than adequately responded to this in his comments on her post. Obviously, students will never need to order food in ancient Greek, or conduct business transactions in Koine. When they step out of the Greek classroom they go back to being immersed in English. But, this is true of all foreign language classes taught in America! It is one reason even really good classroom language teaching can fail to produce proficiency. But, the solution is not just to give up, but to create communicative need both in the classroom and out. I am going to discuss this in an upcoming post about developing a support structure for a communicative curriculum, but here are two quick points: a) in the class, communicative need can be established by allowing only L2 to be spoken; b) outside class, motivated students can create their own L2 environments. For example, several colleges have “German houses” where German majors have created an immersive environment and all other languages are verboten. So, it’s not as big of a problem if you have really motivated students.

3. Artificial Greek
Suzanne is concerned that Greek students would create an “interlanguage,” i.e. an artificial Greek, that would then misguide their reading of Scripture. I suppose this is possible and, in one sense, inevitable. Everyone who learns a second language will make mistakes in it (lots!) and will experience “interference” from their first language. With ancient Greek, I think it’s extremely important that the living language movement strive to check their Greek communication against the standards of the ancient literature itself. Everyone I know who teaches–or advocates teaching—Greek this way agrees. Furthermore, all of us, I think, share Suzanne’s distrust of lexicons and grammars—in fact, speaking for myself, this is a major motivating factor for teaching communicatively! (If anyone wants a bunch of examples, go read John Lee’s history of NT lexicography and prepare to be shocked by a dose of harsh reality.) The solution to bad lexicography and linguistics is to get a better grasp of the language from the inside by constant, wide, extensive (and, yes, occasionally, intensive) reading of the ancient literature with an eye to understanding the communicative dynamics—not to settle for the status quo.

4. Not Perfect? Then Give Up!
Suzanne asserts that native speakers are needed for effective communicative language teaching. Stephen has already responded quite well to this, but I want to point out an issue that I find under the surface of a lot of similar objections to teaching Greek communicatively, including the one discussed above about artificiality. I think such objections fall into the trap of making the perfect the enemy of the good. “If we can’t have native speakers, it’s not worth even trying to learn the language.” “If we ever run the risk of creating artificial Greek, it invalidates the whole enterprise.” “Students will never have an authentic need to converse in Greek, so the whole approach is doomed to failure.” Will we ever reach native fluency? No, probably not. So, we shouldn’t even do our best to work in the direction of true proficiency? How does that follow? I sure am glad Eliezer Ben-Yehuda never talked to Suzanne and heard her interpretation of “authentic communicative need” Smile. [Suzanne clarifies below in the comments that she is not advocating for the status quo, which is good to know.]

To conclude, I think Suzanne brings up some helpful concerns, but they are concerns that can best be expressed with an eye to improving communicative Greek pedagogy, rather than excluding it at the outset. I haven’t even really begun laying out my basic philosophy of Greek teaching on this blog—so far in my series, all I’ve tried to do is establish that current methods of teaching Greek are pretty abysmal, that true proficiency should be a goal, and that everyone agrees the best way to internalize a language and get “inside” it is to pursue pretty much any approach except grammar-translation—the very method that presently has a stranglehold on Greek pedagogy. Can we agree on this?

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12 Responses to Making the Perfect the Enemy of the Good

  1. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Hi Daniel,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and thorough response.

    First, let me clear up a few things. When I wrote “small collection of documents,” I was not referring to you, but rather to my imagination of the worst that could come out of this development. It was an extrapolation for argument’s sake, not an attack on your post.

    Next, like you, I also said that I did not want to settle for the status quo. I want to have a discussion where both of us will delve further into this matter.

    As for my own background, I have a full training as an ESL instructor, have taught in a French Immersion school, and have studied in a Franco-Ontarian Insitute as well as Near Eastern Studies and classics. So I do see the need for something more. But always in the modern languages, the ultimate goal is to live in an authentic second lg situation. I have lived in Toronto, attending the franco Ontarian Centre, in Quebec, and Switzerland. I have honestly never for myself experienced language immersion divorced from the authentic monolingual environment. But I am very aware of the lg production of our French Immersion students. I am not just guessing at all this. For myself, all my instructors were native speakers of the lg of instruction, and I traveled to that country or province to learn the lg more fully. That is perhaps my limitation.

    Regarding an interlanguage for NT Greek, my concern is that someone would use the Greek word κλῆσις as if it meant “calling” in the sense of what we would call a vocation, when in Greek literature outside the NT it seems restricted to being “called” by a certain title, or receiving an invitation or summons. I would also be concerned that someone would pick up Mounces lexicon of the NT and claim that adelphoi meant “brothers” even though in all other ancient Greek it clearly means “siblings.”

    But, once again, I am not arguing for the status quo, but for futher exploration of how native speakers of Greek as a modern language might be involved, of how Greece itself might be inolved, of what literature will be studied – but perhaps you have already presented this.

    In any case, I enjoy the interaction, and look forward to your further discussion.

    • Thanks for replying back, Suzanne, and for clarifying those points. I think your point about the lack of an “authentic” monolingual environment is an important one. It’s really crucial that everyone who wants to teach Koine Greek using living language methods be realistic about what can be accomplished without such an environment, which does not exist outside of texts. So, I’m in full agreement, there.
      On the issue of artificial Greek and the examples you bring up with κλησις and αδελφος, I think the communicative method could conceivably be used to continue such shoddy scholarship, but I don’t know anyone who actually uses the communicative method who is doing so. Most of them are pretty methodologically rigorous–many trained linguists, like Randall Buth, with field experience in Bible translation, etc. I, personally, find a communicative approach to be most useful for combating the simplistic and deeply flawed approach that you find in Mounce’s lexicon. I’ve not used his lexicon, but it sounds like it just glosses words by how English translators have translated them! Everyone I know who teaches Greek communicatively wants to leave behind that kind of mindset–I see it, honestly, as the vestiges of the “Holy Ghost Greek” mentality. My class would learn καλεω by actually summoning people, or calling them a name. We would perhaps gloss the word καλειν/καλεσαι with other Greek words like ονομαζειν or κελευειν τινα προσερχεσθαι.
      I am planning to post at some point on modern Greek and its role in the movement. I hope to get some of those who have spent time in Greece to comment on how it helped/didn’t help their reading of Hellenistic Greek. Based on past conversations, my guess is that the answer will be that there wasn’t enough overlap to make it worthwhile–thus the situation is very different from that with modern Hebrew.
      Thanks again for the discussion!

  2. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Thanks, Daniel. I have enjoyed the interaction, and once again, I am not for the status quo, and I do want to follow your future posts on this topic.

  3. Mark Lightman says:

    μόνη μὲν οὖν τῶν γλωσσῶν ἡ νεκρὰ τελεία ἐστίν. μὴ ἀπολύοι οὖν τὸ καλὸν τὸ τέλειον. ἡ γὰρ ζῶσα γλῶσσα, ὥσπερ ὁ ζῶν ἄνθρωπος, πολλὰ ἁμαρτήματα ποιεῖ. ἡ δὲ συγγνώμη θεία ἐστίν. χρῶ οὖν οἴνῳ μὲν ὀλίγῳ, Ἑλληνικῇ δὲ πολλῇ.

  4. Grigoris says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your thought experiment about what it would take to teach Greek orally; over the years I’ve come to many of the same ideas in my own thinking about the issues. In keeping, however, with your theme of not making the perfect the enemy of the good, I would not be so harsh on using Loebs. I am ABD in Classics, and in my department, which is very serious about reading mastery of the languages, the Loebs serve a very useful role in preparation for our comprehensive exams, not because it’s the easy way out, but because the point of our enormous reading lists actually coincides with one of your goals: to gain an easy familiarity with the language though vast reading. When I prepared for my exams, I read many of the items on my lists with Loebs, which saved me the time of stopping, looking up a lemma in a dictionary, resuming reading, etc… If someone is disciplined enough to actually focus on the ancient text and to use the English side only as a quick lexicon, one can read thousands of pages of ancient text and gain that idiomatic sense that you are looking for. At least in my situation, the reading lists were far too long to allow for any memorization. By the time the exams rolled around, I could read quite easily and quickly.

    • I agree about the Loebs, and have argued elsewhere that diglots, interlinears, and reader’s editions are great tools for getting a lot of comprehensible input quickly, as long as the goal is fluency and extensive reading. I have several future posts planned on this topic. When I talk about the practice of “Loebing,” I am referring to the way that some students read the English first and then look at the Greek, rather than trying to read and understand the Greek on its own terms without having an English translation already in mind. I would be very interested in seeing the reading list for your comps (perhaps if you have it, you could email it to me?), as I am trying to collect data to compare classics courses at an advanced level with NT courses in terms of reading load, expectations of proficiency, etc. I would love to see any syllabuses you might happen to have. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Grigoris says:

    Two more things: the Living Latin movement has been dealing with detractors for years now, and one of the best responses is Nancy Llewellyn’s (; that movement has seen some remarkable success and shows that native speakers are not a prerequisite. Secondly, the idea of reviving languages seems to be of the moment: PBS just aired a documentary on the revival of a long-dead Native American language in Massachusetts (

    • Thanks for the link. Very much worth reading. I also subscribe to the Latin Best Practices email list, which is very active, and serves as a center for discussion of living Latin teaching methods. I have argued for several years that the Oral Koine movement should learn from the Neo-Latin movement and their experiences, methods, and arguments. University of Kentucky is a great example of what can be done–they have an MA in Latin where all classes are conducted entirely in Latin.

      • Grigoris says:

        Yes, Kentucky’s program is very impressive, although the full MA is not conducted in Latin, since only two of the faculty members there use active Latin. I think that the Institute for Latin studies consists of four courses: an intensive conversation and composition course, followed by a three course survey of Latin literature from the Republic through the Renaissance; these form a concentration to be paired with an MA in Classics or any relevant department, such as History. Which merits another remark: I would also suggest that any Spoken Greek movement should take another cue from the Living Latin movement and broaden the horizons to include all ages of usage of the ancient language. Classicists seem to be focused on 5th cent. BC Attic, and NT scholars are focused on texts roughly coeval with the LXX/NT. The Living Latin movement has made it acceptable to read Latin texts from the Renaissance and beyond, and any spoken Greek movement should recognize that a fully ancient form of Greek survived as a learned language, certainly through the Fall of Byzantium, and among certain circles through the Ottoman centuries. The Latinists have broken the equation of Medieval with degenerate, and Hellenists need to do the same with the word Byzantine. Each language should be viewed as a very useful key that provides access to a near inexhaustible wealth of materials from many ages.

      • Thanks for the clarification on UK. It looks like their certificate classes are conducted in Latin, and that they have regular Latin lunches, in addition to their well-known conventiculum each summer.

        I agree with you about incorporating Byzantine and later literature. This is especially important for the Biblical scholar, since there is so much commentary on the Greek Bible in that later literature. I would think anybody who mastered Koine would find little difficulty in reading later literature, all the way up to the 20th century, even, as long as they were willing to deal with a few easy developments in the grammar and the introduction of a lot of more recent loan-words.

  6. Sorry for the necropost, but I’ve been musing about this of late. I think most oppostion to the direct method comes down to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and I think the people who allow this to happen have a certain personality type. I’m not sure what to call it, purist, regulative, perfect theory over sloppy praxis? Needless to say, I’m not knocking these honorable folks; they are what they are. Adademia, I think, attracts such people, and reenforces such a personality. I don’t expect them to change, and I don’t expect the direct method to really catch among academics. ὁ λύκος τὴν τρίχα, οὐ τὴν γνώμην, ἀλλάττει.

    • Mark, here’s my necro-reply: I think you’re right, of course. I’ve seen a lot of this mentality. I also think a lot of it has to do with ego/insecurity issues that many academics suffer from. They are smart, analytical, have amazing memories, and are able to master complex systems. They find their niche in the Greek classroom where they are the expert and students are in awe at their mastery of the arcana of Greek grammar and linguistics. Teaching Greek as a living language has the tendency to make Greek seem real and down-to-earth rather than an impossibly difficult magical relic of antiquity. It also requires most Greek profs to start almost from scratch in their approach to Greek. That’s quite unsettling for someone who’s used to being the expert.

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