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” . [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?