About the Series
This is part of an ongoing series where I discuss resources that should be developed to aid teachers and students in acquiring Koine Greek communicatively.
A Conversational Audio Course
I think we need an extensive audio course for Koine Greek. It could be modeled after similar audio programs produced by Pimsleur, Berlitz, Assimil, Michel Thomas or other companies. (The old Foreign Service Institute, or FSI, language courses are available, both audio and workbook, for free here–be sure to check them out!). I will discuss the Pimsleur model since I am most familiar with it. Here’s how it works:
- Languages are divided into levels, with 30 units of audio plus some reading lessons. Each unit is around 30 minutes, which means that each level gives you about 16 hours of instruction. Major languages, such as Spanish, have four levels, totaling 64 hours of instruction. Native speakers are, of course, used exclusively.
- Each unit opens with a rapid-fire conversation. You won’t understand anything the first time you hear it, but after you finish the unit, you should be able to understand it all with no problem. That’s a big encouragement to a beginning learner, and quickly convinces you that the method is very effective.
- The unit will then introduce some basic vocabulary, give you a chance to practice pronouncing each new item, and then give you prompts in English that allow you to practice producing the new phrases or words. You will not just be memorizing phrases, but learning to use them intelligently in response to prompts. For example, the prompt will be: “Ask the woman if she speaks Spanish,” or “Ask the man where the restaurant is.” As the units progress, a greater percentage of the prompts will be in the target language (L2).
- At the heart of the Pimsleur method is spaced repetition. This is a way of reviewing new information at regular intervals optimized for retention. In my experience, there is enough review in each unit and subsequent units that you don’t have to worry about going back and re-listening to previous units if you feel you didn’t master them. It’s pretty stress-free, albeit perhaps a bit boring.
- Pimsleur has no explicit grammar instruction. All grammar is acquired inductively. Thus, this is a natural language learning method.
- The courses focus on the most common vocabulary in the spoken language, with a specific focus, perhaps, on courtesy language or touristy topics like getting around a city, staying at a hotel, etc. Each level covers around 500 words, which means that after 4 levels, you should have a working active vocabulary of close to 2000 words (these are inflected forms, not necessarily lemmata). For the sake of comparison, Mounce’s best-selling Greek textbook covers 331 vocabulary words in one year, but only aims for passive recognition.
- You can listen to a sample lesson on the Pimsleur site.
- While the price is pretty steep (for all four levels, you could spend close to $1000 retail), you can often find these CDs at your local public library, or find them used on Craigslist or eBay for under $50!
Please don’t misunderstand me: Pimsleur and other audio programs are not perfect and they’re certainly not the best way to learn a language—long-term intensive guided immersion followed up by extensive free reading is far superior. But, like other resources I will be discussing in this series, they are a great way for someone to get their feet wet in the language on their own schedule and under no pressure. If there were a Pimsleur for Koine Greek available, thousands of Greek students would be able to quickly experience what internalization feels like, as well as acquire a basic vocabulary that could be used to give them a real head start in an immersion-based program. Like Rosetta Stone software, Greek picture books, and English-Greek learner’s dictionaries, a Pimsleur-style program is not a one-stop solution for language learning, but is an aid to acquisition, the kind of aid that students can use in a language lab outside of class time.
Here are, in my opinion, some pros and cons of the Pimsleur program.
- It’s really great for getting proper pronunciation down.
- Lots of repetition makes it low stress and really cements what you learn—you won’t forget it.
- The lessons come in bite-sized chunks of 30 mins each, which means you can cover a unit on your commute in to work.
- Pimsleur is not as effective for some elements of the language, such as reading and following a story. Thus, it needs to be supplemented with in-class instruction. I do, think, though, that the audio prompting method could be easily adapted to story format. Imagine, for example, a unit that consisted of a short story told slowly at first, then sentence by sentence, with questions/prompts in L2 about each sentence. It could replicate the basics of TPRS, I think, in audio format.
- The repetition can be boring for some people. I found it only slightly so, but I did the lessons while driving to work. If you were just sitting by yourself and doing the lessons, you might find them a little slow-going.
My Greek Pimsleur Program
Several years ago, I realized personally how effective Pimsleur was for establishing basic conversational fluency, so I decided to put together a Pimsleur-style program for my elementary Greek students. I used a transcript of the Spanish Pimsleur program as a model. Spanish is inflected and has a lot of structures analogous to Greek, so it wasn’t too hard to adapt, though it would have been better if I had had a transcript of Pimsleur’s modern Greek program instead.
Writing and recording the lessons was incredibly time-consuming. I completed about 8 lessons before I simply ran out of time in the course of the semester. Did I mention I was writing a dissertation and teaching a course overload at the time? I also called it quits because I found that the Spanish Pimsleur was introducing vocabulary that I didn’t think was “important”—hotel, restaurant, etc. At first, I just plugged in a common Koine word—everywhere Pimsleur said hotel, I would use ἐκκλησία! But, after a while, it got too confused and I just started writing my own scripts. When I did, I found that I couldn’t get the intervals for repetition right and my lessons started pushing 45 minutes, which is way too long. It was overwhelming my students because it was too much info and too little repetition and review. So, I stopped developing the lessons while I reconsidered my strategy. Don’t get me wrong, though: even with my shortcomings, the students really loved the format of the audio lessons and continued to beg me for more the rest of the year.
Were I to take up this project again, I think I would follow the Pimsleur script closely. I would not worry about using vocabulary that was not that common. ταβέρνη or πανδοχεῖον may not be that frequent in the NT or LXX, but they will be things my students want to talk about. They are necessary vocabulary if we are to create an immersive environment, and as students use them over and over, the basic morphology and grammar of Greek are becoming internalized, even if the words aren’t that common in our texts. It’s also just much easier to follow the script and not have to worry about composing one de novo.
What Do You Think?
Let me know in the comments whether you think a Pimsleur-style course for Koine Greek is worthwhile, or if you have ideas or suggestions for making the concept better.