Do You Need to Speak Greek in Order to Read It? (SBL 2012 Report)

The annual meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature was held last week in Chicago. Over the next couple of posts I want to sum up some of the activities that our Applied Linguistics group hosted. Hopefully I do better on this year’s summary than I did on last year’s (which I should probably one day get around to finishing!). I didn’t make it to the ETS meeting this year, so if anyone attended the Greek sessions there and is interested in doing a guest post (or posts) on them, please let me know.

A psycho linguist?

Psycholinguistics and Greek
I’ll start with the first session on Saturday morning. Brian Schultz, who serves with me on the ALBL group’s steering committee, presented the first paper. It was a true bombshell. Brian has been researching the process and theory of reading over the past year and presented his findings with a few applications to teaching biblical languages. His focus in this paper was the psycholinguistics of reading, namely, what kind of process does your mind go through when you read a word, sentence or paragraph? What does it mean (in terms of second language acquisition) to be a proficient reader?

Reading is Hearing
I took a couple key points away from the presentation:

  1. Proficient reading in a second language is NOT translation into the first language, for example, from Greek to English. Those who read proficiently have already internalized the language.
  2. For proficient reading, automaticity is necessary. In SLA, automaticity means automatic recognition and understanding of a word or phrase. It actually happens involuntarily, without intervening analysis. It is not subject to introspection.
  3. In proficient reading, there is a phonological loop. As you read, you subvocalize (i.e. say the words in your mind), and your mind stores these virtual ‘sounds’ in its short term memory buffer where they can be recognized and comprehended automatically. This short term working memory allows understanding to occur in chunks. Here’s the main point about the phonological loop: it exists in order to allow you to hear the words so that you can understand them. All true reading entails this conversion of the written word into virtual sound. Thus, in a sense, reading is hearing. Of course, the only way you can ‘hear’ the words in your mind is to have heard them before in real-life, communicative situations where they were used in a comprehensible context.

Reading vs. Speed-Translating
So, here’s the bottom line: in order to read proficiently, you have to have oral-aural proficiency. It’s a prerequisite, without which a well-functioning phonological loop and automaticity can never exist. A corollary to this, as Brian pointed out, is that nobody is really reading the biblical languages nowadays. We are, at best, speed-translating. This is because nobody has developed the oral-aural basis necessary for reading. Some second language acquisition experts actually go so far as to say that the best way to improve your reading is to become more fluent in hearing and speaking the language, since this is the basis for all reading. This seems to me to be right, at least in the first stages of language acquisition. It does seem, though, that the learner eventually reaches something of a threshold, where they have become fluent enough in the oral-aural aspects of the second language that most of their linguistic development (such as further vocabulary acquisition) will come through what Krashen calls free voluntary reading. Of course, free voluntary reading is impossible until a basic level of oral-aural fluency has been established.

Speak to Read
Where does this leave us? Well, it highlights the need to focus language classes on providing tons of spoken comprehensible input so that we and our students can hear and understand the language as we see it–automatically and without thinking or analyzing–rather than seeing Greek but thinking English, as the speedier decoders among us have become accustomed to doing.
It also emphasizes what so many apparently (at least from the objections I normally encounter) cannot get: if your goal is to fluently read Ancient Greek or Hebrew you have to learn to speak and hear it. There are no shortcuts. We’re not doing this so that we can one day order non-foamy lattes (or orange mocha frappuccinos) in Greek; our ultimate goal is to read these languages fluently, for pleasure, with understanding, and without the intrusion of English. Speaking ancient Greek is a means to an end; the end is authentic reading.

DISCLAIMER: I am not psycho. I am not a linguist. Nor am I a psycholinguist. I may have misunderstood Brian and some of the details of his presentation. Feel free to comment with technical corrections. Also, if you attended the session and want to supplement my report, please do so, as I did not take notes and am relying entirely on my memory.


About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
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20 Responses to Do You Need to Speak Greek in Order to Read It? (SBL 2012 Report)

  1. Anna says:

    Nice Post! I loved the “Psycho Linguist” ; )

    You stated that no one really reads the Biblical languages nowadays.

    Biblical Greek is still read with proficiency and ease in Greek Orthodox Churches. I am a Greek Orthdox Convert and a native English Speaker, but my Husband is a native speaker of Modern Greek, and can understand Biblical Greek with the same ease I can hear and understand King James (Elizabethan) English. Our preschooler is learning to both speak and read Greek – and I hope that one day she will understand it as her Daddy does : )

  2. jeltzz says:

    Thanks Daniel, an interesting paper and a good write-up from yourself.

  3. Chris Newcomer says:

    In learning Portuguese I have found this to be true. I began using Rosetta Stone but once I was in country my oral- aural learning seemed to leap ahead of my spoken ability. Thanks for a very interesting synopsis.

  4. Barry says:

    Daniel, thanks again, appreciate your work on this. A couple of observations:

    1) I think it is possible to develop a fairly high level of internalization simply reading the language(s). However, it takes a lot of reading, and, even more importantly, reading aloud. I still remember my intro Greek professor in college stating, “The function of language is primarily verbal, and that’s why I insist on reading the text aloud.” He then proceeded to use a very traditional grammatical-translation approach. Even as an undergraduate, I found that if I had trouble with a text, reading it aloud often meant that I could understand the text, and so prepare a better translation for those professors who kept insisting I had to do assignments to get my degree. Let me also observe that it takes longer to develop internalization using this method than in an oral-aural oriented approach.

    2) I liked your comments on “speed translation.” Some years ago I realized that this was most often what I was doing, and forced myself to stop, simply to read the text. The more I practiced, the easier it got. I still occasionally find myself translating when faced with a challenging text, but I then go back and read it without translating. I’ve found I have little trouble with the authors I’ve been teaching lately, NT of course, but also Vergil, Ovid and Cicero for Latin and Homer, Herodotus, and Xenophon for Greek.

    3) With regard to the previous poster, I’m a little suspicious, not that the claims are false, but that modern Greek is really all that much of a help to understand ancient. I think it has more to do with the church environment and hearing the traditional (Byzantine) text interpreted along with regularly reading it. As an undergrad, we had a fairly large number of students from Greece studying at our college. They would show up occasionally to take a classics course if a fairly “easy” author such as the NT or Xenophon was offered. Greek nationals who had studied ancient Greek did well, but those who hadn’t certainly did no better, and sometimes worse, than American students who may only have had a year or three of Greek prior to reading those authors.

    • Barry, thanks for the substantial comment. I too am skeptical of modern Greek claims to read ancient Greek fluently, for the reasons you state. I agree that reading aloud would provide the aural input that would contribute to establishing automaticity. As you say, though, it sure is a lot longer path to take than a more straightforward oral-aural approach. I do see reading aloud as a helpful and necessary ancillary to a communicative approach.

      • I agree that it is the Church culture in combination with the Modern Greek comprehension and academic study that work in combination to provide this level of understanding. There are many speakers of Modern Greek who don’t attend Church often, and find Biblical Greek incomprehensible – just as there are Modern English speakers who don’t understand Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible.

        I was simply stating that there are *some* speakers of Modern Greek – like my Husband, who I have observed up close for some years – who hae a lifetime of Church exposure to the Biblical Text and read it as comfortably as I – as a native speaker of Modern English – read the King James Version after a lifetime of attending Church where it is read.

  5. Matt Frost says:

    It wasn’t until I got the aural-oral loop that I ever started to become proficient in the language. My original classical Greek pedagogy in undergrad was paradigm memorization, and while it integrated culture along with the translation, it didn’t provide us with aural context. My “refresher” seminary pedagogy was Mounce, taught with only a hair more orality and much less bulk memorization than my undergrad courses. I only finally got the orality by studying performance criticism with David Rhoads, and re-learning the New Testament!

    I have to say, also, that the impact of this psycholinguistic insight works as much for grammar and syntax as it does for basic proficiency. You simply must read the Greek as something that makes sense in Greek, to a Greek speaker and listener. In a language where placement of words modifies meaning, it’s not enough to restructure into English sentence sequences.

    I wonder, though, whether phonology matters. I’ve had success in this even using a form of Erasmian pronunciation that lets me convey exact spelling, even if it doesn’t let me carry all of the rhymes of the itastic pronunciations.

    • Matt, I don’t think that phonology matters for establishing the phonological loop–only that the words/utterances be regularly heard in comprehensible contexts. I do believe, however, that phonology matters for performance criticism, since it definitely affects the rhythms, sounds, and wordplays that are part of the text’s texture.

  6. abramkj says:

    Good food for thought. Thanks for this.

  7. Ian Drummond says:

    I appreciate this summary of some of these findings, especially the findings of SLA applied to ancient languages. I came across an article (an 1887 address) eight or nine years ago, and it changed the way I approach Latin and Greek:

  8. Pingback: Subvocalization and Greek Speed Reading | καὶ τὰ λοιπά

  9. This is very helpful for structuring future Greek classes, especially first or second year. But should we then standardize the pronunciation of Koine? It seems that most Greek profs have their own way of “speaking” the language, and most struggle to make it sound “natural.” It would be helpful if the speaking and hearing of Koine became an essential component of beginning, and advanced, Greek instruction.

    • Cameron Hamm says:

      Tavis, I started out learning Greek after having taken linguistics, and after having learned a couple of other languages. I naturally wanted to learn Greek in a similar method to my other living languages. I was horrified when my professor said that it didn’t matter how to pronounce as long as you remember the meanings of the words. That didn’t make sense to me at all as a linguist. There must be a standard that all the students should aim for. I’m sure this helps the phonological loop, so that you hear what your teacher said when you’re reading.

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  11. Randall Buth says:

    Just a brief clarification on ‘subvocalization’ and ‘hearing’ the language in the mind. This should not be confused with consciously hearning the sound in the brain. Dr. Schultz’s paper was dealing with the neural processes that are pre-conscious. The brain converts the reading images to sounds and then matches sounds to identify words, all before any cognitive meaning pops into the brain. It is unconscious and must be very very fast in order for any meaning to be attained. He also mentioned a short-term memory limit of two seconds, after which the sounds drop out of the preconscious processings. Language one may be called in to prop up the process if language two is not in place for rapid processing. If no meaning was constructed the ‘reader’ must repeat and rehearse the reading until meaning is produced. What people of ancient languages call ‘reading’, then, is typically a skill of rapid rereading until they can somehow put together a whole clause or sentence into meaning. That is not the way truly fluent readers read. It also blocks higher level processing of the reading in the second language. Hopefully, Brian will have time to post his paper after the holidays. חגים לשמחה εὔχομαι ὑμᾶς ἑορτὰς εὐλογίας ἔχειν

    • Thanks, Randall, for this. It’s good to head off any misconception about the nature of subvocalization. My simplifications perhaps obscured the fact that I mentioned elsewhere in the post, namely that this is all happening at the level of automatic neural processes, not what we normally mean by “hearing.”

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