Greek the Obscure?

Shattered-Dreams1I was alerted to this great section of Thomas Hardy’s classic, Jude the Obscure, by Donald Fairbairn, who refers to it in his new book, Understanding Language (which I discussed briefly here). I think it captures perfectly how disappointed many college and seminary students are when they finish their first semester or year of Greek (or Hebrew or Latin) and realize how unrealistic their original dreams were. They had hoped to be able to read the Bible (or other great ancient texts) in the original language, but instead they find they have just spent months on end memorizing charts and endings, diagramming sentences, cramming English definitions that don’t always apply, and digging through lexicons—not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.

jude-the-obscureAnyway, here’s the excerpt. Jude had requested and received some Greek and Latin grammars. When he gets them, here’s what he discovers:

Ever since his first ecstasy or vision of Christminster and its possibilities Jude had meditated much and curiously on the probable sort of process that was involved in turning the expressions of one language into those of another. He concluded that a grammar of the required tongue would contain, primarily, a rule, prescription, or clue of the nature of a secret cipher, which, once known, would enable him by merely applying it, to change at will all words of his own speech into those of the foreign one. . . .

He learnt for the first time that there was no law of transmutation as in his innocence he had supposed . . . but that every word in both Latin and Greek was to be individually committed to memory at the cost of years of plodding.

Jude flung down the books, lay backward along the broad trunk of the elm, and was an utterly miserable boy for the space of a quarter of an hour. As he had often done before he pulled his hat over his face, and watched the sun peering insidiously at him through the interstices of the straw. This was Latin and Greek, then, was it; this grand delusion! The charm he had supposed in store for him was really a labour like that of Israel in Egypt. What brains they must have in Christminster and the great schools, he presently thought, to learn words one by one up to tens of thousands. There were no brains in his head equal to this business, and as the little sun-rays continued to stream in through his hat at him he wished he had never seen a book, that he might never see another, that he had never been born.

When will language profs realize that the Grammar-Translation method of teaching Greek (notice I do not say “learning” Greek!) truly makes Greek class “a labour like that of Israel in Egypt?” Why work your mental fingers to the bone committing every word to memory when you could immerse yourself and learn virtually effortlessly? Remember all that slaving away you did to acquire your 30000-word English vocabulary? Yeah, me neither! Language learning should be fun! It is necessary that stumbling-blocks come, but woe to the one through whom it comes (οὐαὶ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ δι᾽ οὗ τὸ σκάνδαλον ἔρχεται)! Acquire the language naturally and teach the language naturally, because you just don’t look so hot with a millstone around your neck.


About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
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6 Responses to Greek the Obscure?

  1. I agree up to a point. While I’m very much in favor of learning the languages in an active fashion, I don’t know that it’s possible to acquire the kind of broad foundation now required of Greek & Latin students after their first year through an immersive, spoken approach. I certainly agree that in an immersive, spoken approach to the first year, they’ll come out with a better grasp of the words they’ve encountered, but far more than one year will be necessary to lay the vocabulary foundation of the language. And I’m all for taking far more than one year! But for most students today, beginning in their freshman year of undergrad, this isn’t a luxury they can afford – or, at least, not one they are afforded. I suppose you’ve looked at Rouse’s materials for teaching Greek in an active, oral fashion? If memory serves, his curriculum envisions having far more daily contact (not to mention years) with the boys than is ordinarily given to any elementary language course today.

    The other challenge I perceive to this method is that (again, assuming more than a super slow progress) older students need and greatly benefit from, given their poor formation in English grammar, grammatical explanations more robust than those that, in time, they might glean from an inductive method. (How does one cover aspect & tense in a purely Greek classroom?)

    I’m not saying all this can’t be done, only that the active, oral approach in the first year classroom needs more time than we can give language instruction at present, unfortunately.

    On a somewhat related note, we’ll be hosting Christophe Rico at Ave Maria U. this summer. He is, I believe, one of the leading practitioners of the active method for teaching ancient Greek. Interestingly, when he first visited us, he said he often likes students to have some background in the basics before doing the full first year sequence with him according to this method.

    • Joseph, thanks for your comment. That sounds like a great opportunity with Rico this summer. Perhaps you can supply more details? Is this something open to students outside of Ave Maria?

      On the issue of what can be accomplished in one year, κτλ, you might find that some of my earlier posts, under the tag Basics of Greek Pedagogy address many of your points or concerns.

      I have a post coming up very soon about a paper/presentation I gave at SBL this year addressing the question of teaching exegetical method (including grammar) in an immersion classroom. So, stay tuned for that. You ask: “How does one cover aspect & tense in a purely Greek classroom?” I would urge you to consider how, for example, Paul, Philo, or Plato “covered” tense and aspect in their education. One certainly does not need to use English to do so!

  2. Angela Flock says:

    I’m sure this is a dumb question, but what do you mean by the “grammar-translation” method? It seems to me that a little grammar and memorization is necessary for understanding any language.

    What seems to have helped me is a basic understanding of grammar (a little memorization never hurt anyone) and then pretty much diving into attempting to read (and being read to) in Koine Greek or Biblical Hebrew. (It doesn’t hurt to continue trying to memorize vocab along the way either.)

    I’m actually in a Hebrew class right now that focuses on reading first and foremost. It’s amazing how much vocab sticks for me when I see it over and over in the narrative books. I’m using a Hebrew Reader that shows the less frequent glosses, and after about two semesters of study, I have read fairly comfortably through Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, and more. I’m not trying to brag, but it can be done if we don’t give up. Of course, like the character, Jude, we all get discouraged, overwhelmed, and frustrated that we can’t be where we want to be instantaneously.

    Ideally, learning a language would be a completely natural process that just happens because we’re immersed in it from birth, but with Biblical languages that isn’t generally an option. What I think you mean by the “grammar-translation” method isn’t perfect, but I do marvel sometimes at how little we are willing to work today. Sure, it doesn’t hurt if it can be fun along the way, but some things are worth the toil whether it’s fun or not. No work is wasted. Your character may benefit even more than your mind.

    • Angela, not a dumb question at all. In short, G-T was a method used early on in modern language instruction where students were taught the grammatical structure of the language they hoped to learn and were required to translate texts from the L2 (the second language they hoped to acquire) to L1 (their native language). That should sound familiar, as it is how Ancient Greek/Hebrew are still taught today, even though second language instruction for modern languages long ago realized the futility of the method. If you want more info, I would recommend checking out Rod Ellis’ works (e.g. this one, which will contain a brief history of L2 teaching and methods).

      I think it’s really important to realize a key difference between the way G-T was used a century ago for teaching, say, German, and the way it’s used now to teach Greek/Hebrew. When L2 teachers used it, they were aiming for true proficiency or fluency in the language (all four skills). But, today, when Gk/Heb teachers use G-T, they really have no goal of fluency or proficiency. The goal instead is to be able to use tools, read a verse every couple minutes, analyze, parse, diagram, and translate.

      Let me also invite you to read through some of the posts in my series called Basics of Greek Pedagogy where I address this and other related issues. I would like especially to point you to the post on what it means to “read,” as that might give you some ideas about how to evaluate, or at least describe, your current class, which is focused on “reading.”

      Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment!

  3. Carl W. Conrad says:

    “G-T was a method used early on in modern language instruction where students were taught the grammatical structure of the language they hoped to learn and were required to translate texts from the L2 (the second language they hoped to acquire) to L1 (their native language). ”

    While this is certainly an accurate description of the “Grammar-Translation” pedagogy for Greek (and Latin) most commonly in use today, I’m not so sure how far back it goes in the history of ancient Greek pedagogy. I don’t really know that history or whether it has been researched (if not, it should be). I have the impression that composition in Greek and Latin — from the very early stages of instruction — was a regular accompaniment of Classical language instruction in English-speaking schools well into the 20th century, and I suspect that conversation was part of it in earlier centuries. I think that conversation must have continued in usage in German Gymnasien (I don’t think Johnson’s “Sprechen Sie Attisch” is a freak; it seems to have been a popular Untersrichtsarbeit. I wonder if it isn’t the case that the G-T methodology is a stage in the historical devaluation of competence in Greek (and Latin), a stage that preceded the more recent 3-week or 1-month seminary crash courses in NT Koine and instruction in the use of Biblical language software programs.

    I certainly don’t mean to deny that G-T is fundamentally an obstacle to acquiring real competence in reading the ancient language.

    • Carl, you might enjoy reading Donati Graeci, which deals with the teaching of Greek during the Renaissance:

      As for the G-T method, composition in the language is a traditional part of the G-T method, in my understanding. So, that by itself would not distinguish a pedagogy from G-T. However, any active oral use (I include listening under “use”) or conversation would certainly be a departure from G-T. From my very limited research, conversation (the “colloquium method, as it was called) was a standard feature in classical pedagogy during the Renaissance at least. I think it’s intuitive that to gain fluency in a language, you must immerse, so it doesn’t surprise me that Renaissance teachers advocated the colloquium method.

      I wholeheartedly agree that the G-T method as practiced in most Biblical Greek classrooms today is a far cry from what G-T demanded of its students in the golden age of traditional pedagogy–the “tools” method being perhaps the final stage in its devolution.

      On this blog and in my daily discussions about pedagogy, I often split my time arguing for two distinct (but related) propositions: 1) That fluency in the language should be the goal, and 2) That the best way to reach fluency is not G-T, but some type of natural approach. Both are universally accepted in modern SLA research/practice, but almost universally opposed in classical language pedagogy. I feel that if I can convince my colleagues of the first proposition (fluency as the goal), the second will follow naturally in time, just as it did with modern language teaching.

      The problem, of course, is that sometimes the conversation gets confused. People say things like, “I appreciate your method [the natural approach], but I also believe there should be room for all kinds of methods.” What they don’t realize is that where we really differ is not on our methods, but on our fundamental goals or aims: fluency vs. translation/tools skills. So, I try to steer the conversation toward what goals we want to pursue, only to find out they merely want to be able to (or have their students be able to) use software and understand Bible commentaries! φεῦ παπαῖ!

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