Setting the Bar at Fluency, pt. 1 (SBL 2012 Report)

This post is the third post in my report on the annual meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature, held Nov 17-20 in Chicago. Here are the first and second parts. In its second session, our Applied Linguistics group hosted a panel to address the question, “Where should we set the bar in biblical language training?” The rest of this post is the first half of my presentation attempting to answer the question. I welcome your feedback, questions, and suggestions, though you may wish to wait for the second half of the paper coming later this week.

Where do We Set the Bar in Biblical Language Training?

The Importance of the Question
As teachers (and as students) of ancient languages, what should our goals be? goalsWhat should we aim for? What should we be trying to achieve in our courses and curricula? This is a very important question—maybe the most important, in fact. We can discuss and argue all day about methodology for teaching Biblical languages, but if we don’t have a clear goal or end in mind, we will simply be talking past each other.

Unfortunately, it seems to me, many Greek and Hebrew classes operate on something like autopilot. Teachers use, in many cases, the same textbooks they were taught from. Declensions are learned, vocabulary glosses memorized, verbs parsed, diagrams drawn, charts filled in. Regular quizzes and tests start to drive the semester. And, somewhere in the midst of it all, we lose sight of what exactly we are trying to do. Teachers are trying to “get through the material.” Students are just trying to survive and keep their heads above water. Yogi Berra perhaps put it best: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” It is my contention that most Greek and Hebrew classes end up “someplace else,” because our goals and aims are not clearly defined.

Where I’m Coming From
Today, I want to address that lack. My goal in this brief presentation is to discuss what I think the goals of Biblical language pedagogy should be, that is, where to set the bar for students (and teachers) of the Biblical languages. Just a few words about myself, so you know where I’m coming from: I approach this question from the standpoint of one who has taught Koine Greek for the past 7 years at both an undergraduate and graduate level. The institution at which I teach is a Bible college that requires one year (6 credits) each of both Greek and Hebrew for all undergraduate and MDiv students. I have taught Greek using, in some years, traditional grammar-translation methods, and in other years, communicative methods that aim at immersing the student in the language. In the following remarks I will primarily refer to Greek, since that is what I teach, but everything I say is also applicable to Classical Hebrew.

Some Important Definitions
Now, isn’t it clear that the goal of a Greek curriculum should be to learn Greek? When students graduate from a Greek program, isn’t it reasonable that they should know Greek? Shouldn’t a graduate be able to read the Greek NT and OT as well as other important Greek texts (classics, church fathers, contemporary literature)?

This brings us straight to the real problem in any discussion about Greek pedagogy and its goals: definitions. What do we mean when we talk about “learning” Greek, “knowing” Greek, and “reading Greek?” We have to answer these questions if we’re going to gain any clarity whatsoever about our goals and how high we should be setting the bar.


Goals in Modern Language Education
Consider, for example, the teaching of modern languages. Here the definitions are rather simple. For instance, take the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats. If I want to be a diplomat to Russia, I enroll in training at the FSI, and my goals are simple: to learn Russian or to know Russian, including being able to read Russian. I need to be able to move to Russia and speak, write, read, and understand spoken Russian of all types. I must become fluent or proficient in Russian. According to the FSI, this goal is what they call “Professional Working Proficiency.” It includes the ability to:

  • participate effectively and easily in conversations on the full spectrum of usual topics
  • completely comprehend normal-speed speech
  • have a big enough vocabulary that you don’t have to grope for words
  • avoid errors that interfere with understanding

If I achieve Professional Working Proficiency, I will be able to read moderately difficult Russian at a reasonable pace, say 200-250 wpm. I will not—and this is important—be translating from Russian into English in my mind. Rather, I need to be thinking in Russian. Thus, the bar is set at fluency. Anything less and I will not be able to be effective in the diplomatic service.

Goals in University Programs
Alternatively, think about a modern language program for undergraduates at any major university. Programs in German, French, or Spanish also aim for their students to learn, know, and be able to read their target languages. Here again, the terms are defined in the normal way. After four years of a German program at a university I should be able to read and speak German fluently, to the extent that I could live comfortably in Germany without being hampered by any significant language barrier. The bar, again, is set at fluency. Anything less is considered a failure.

Knowing/Learning Ancient Greek
Things change completely when we look at ancient Greek courses, though. Each of the key words—“learn, know, read” is redefined. In ancient Greek classes, “learning” the language no longer means gaining communicative ability in it. Now it means learning *about* the language. Class is conducted, not in Greek, but in English. All description and analysis of the language is conducted in English. Greek texts are translated into English. Greek students, upon leaving a Greek course, will have little to no proficiency (as normally defined) in Greek, but the better students will have become highly proficient in the metalanguage—the terminology of grammatical and syntactical analysis. And, why wouldn’t they, as this is the language their professors have mastered and modeled to the students?

“Reading” Ancient Greek
Perhaps the most pernicious shift in definitions, though, comes with the term “reading.” Those who have achieved fluency in a second language read in that language much the same way that they read in their native tongue. There is an immediacy and directness between the words on the page and the thoughts or pictures stimulated in the mind of the reader. The reader is thinking in the language.

In the doublespeak of the Ancient Greek classroom, however, reading is translation—for most students, very, very slow, grinding, laborious, and, ultimately, very often poorly done translation. Gone is the immediacy and attendant pleasure of true reading—of thinking the author’s thoughts after him/her. Some students, usually the memorizers, will thrive in such a setting, as they are able to remember large blocks of translations and the endless list of English glosses needed to ace their vocabulary and reading tests. Some may even become speed translators. An observer might even think the speed translator is reading, but the internal experience is different, because the speed translator never makes the transition to *thinking* in Greek. As a result, he will always lack the immediacy of true reading. He will always be “kissing through the veil”—to use one poet’s description of translation.

reading montoya

Experts in the field of second language acquisition have long known that the immediacy of true reading requires an oral-aural basis (as Brian Schultz discussed in this paper). Unless the second language learner achieves a basic level of speaking and listening ability in the second language, she will never be able to think in the language and thus enjoy reading fluency.

To be continued . . .


About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
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13 Responses to Setting the Bar at Fluency, pt. 1 (SBL 2012 Report)

  1. Aaron says:

    Couldn’t agree more. By the way, the quote you cited is just a paraphrase of Hayim Nahman Bialik (“ללמד תרגום זה כמו לנשק את הכלה דרך צעיף”).

  2. Stephen says:

    In this post, fluency seems to be characterized as a static attribute: you’re either fluent in a language or you’re not. If you’re not fluent, you wash out of the diplomatic corps or you’re a failed German major.

    But I think we also have to think of fluency on a continuum. For example, plenty of modern language majors are not perfectly fluent at the end of their degree programs. They still have plenty to learn about the language, both in terms of explicit knowledge and in terms of their developmental sequences. Yet the pedagogy used in their courses, more or less, has prepared them to _work toward fluency_ in the language. That doesn’t mean that they’ll be “fluent” when they finish. For example, “Professional Working Proficiency” in Russian is not “fluency” as much as it’s a particular level of fluency.

    So for the classical languages, I certainly agree that fluency should be the goal. But instead of asking whether students of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew are “fluent” at the end of their programs, I would rather ask whether the methodology used in their languages classes _promotes_ fluency or works against it. To use the European framework, aiming for a B1 level of ancient Greek, much less C1, in all four skills would be a dramatic improvement — but even that is not necessarily native-like.

    Anyway, looking forward to the next post!

    • I don’t know that I disagree with anything you’ve written here. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t think of fluency as a continuum, nor do I know anyone who wants to set the bar for college or grad programs at “perfect fluency”–whatever that is–or even native-like proficiency! The point of the presentation was that it’s reasonable to expect Greek students at the end of a 3/4-yr sequence to be able to do basically the kind of things we expect modern language students to do: speak, read, listen to, and write normal-level texts with relative ease; carry on class in language, etc. But this is clearly not the goal of any existing program. Thus, we have to agree upon basic fluency as a desideratum before we can even start the discussion about what methods are best. In my experience it is pointless to argue for a communicative approach to someone who doesn’t want to communicate in a language, but only wants to translate, decode, and analyze.

      I do have another post scheduled for later this week or early next that addresses the priority of goal to method.

      • Stephen says:

        Okay, sure, that makes sense. This passage is part of what led to me to characterize “fluency” in the post the way I did:

        “After four years of a German program at a university I should be able to read and speak German fluently, to the extent that I could live comfortably in Germany without being hampered by any significant language barrier. The bar, again, is set at fluency. Anything less is considered a failure.”

        Based on your clarification, I see I should interpret that differently. I’ll be watching for the next post.

      • I guess the words I would emphasize there would be ‘comfortably’ and ‘significant.’ 🙂 By describing fluency this way, I was actually trying to define it pretty conservatively, so that no one would get any ideas about perfection being the standard–a standard which, BTW, native speakers do not even meet. Also, my statement there should not be taken to mean that a student would fail (as in, get an F) if he did not achieve this type of fluency. I’ve been in too many situations where folks were passed on through regardless of performance to know that’s not always the case. I merely mean that the language professors in the modern language department would feel that the student who could not do these things after 4 years of coursework had definitely not achieved the level their program aimed at.

        I think the main point was that when Greek profs/students talk about ‘knowing’ the language, they mean something totally different from what normal people do. I’m pretty sure we’re both agreed on that point and on the solution being, at the least, a move away from the traditional grammar-translation method.

        Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • mvpcworshipblog says:


        I greatly appreciate the work that you are doing.

        I do have a question though: You write:

        “The point of the presentation was that it’s reasonable to expect Greek students at the end of a 3/4-yr sequence to be able to do basically the kind of things we expect modern language students to do: speak, read, listen to, and write normal-level texts with relative ease; carry on class in language, etc. But this is clearly not the goal of any existing program.”

        Where are the four year sequences in Biblical Greek that you have in mind? I’m sure there are a few places where this is offered, but nearly all the programs that I am aware of are designed to be taken in two or three semesters. Frankly, it almost doesn’t matter what method is used for teaching: Nobody achieves fluency at 6 credit hours.

        This means, that in addition to working on approaches to teaching, we need to be fighting for longer periods (or more intensive periods) of language training. Given that pastors also need to learn Hebrew and Aramaic – we are talking about a considerable increase in time commitment to this task.

        Best wishes,

      • David,

        I am thinking here of seminary M.Div sequences, which are typically 3 years, and often followed up by a 4th year ThM. Traditionally, MDiv students are required to take Greek their first year, then follow that up with intermediate or advanced Greek grammar courses and NT exegesis courses that are supposed to work with the Greek text. Of course, at many schools, this is no longer the case, but most seminaries at least offer this as an option.

        So, what I picture and would advocate for is the same sequence. Do a first year immersive Greek course that gets the student communicating in Greek. Then do grammar courses and exegesis courses in the 2nd and 3rd year that are conducted in Greek, exclusively. This would be 18 credits of Greek, which is still not much, but certainly better than taking the same amount in classes conducted entirely in English, where the goal is translation and labeling rather than acquiring fluency.

      • mvpcworshipblog says:

        Thanks Daniel.

        In my judgment a person needs three years of Greek and not three years of Greek related courses (There was a study commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts maybe 18 or 19 years ago that showed that it normally takes three years of college level study in language for the student to be able to read the language and to continue reading the language once he or she left college). Undoubtedly, exegesis courses can help refine a student’s understanding of grammar but they really don’t help a student move meaningfully toward fluency.

        Thanks again.


      • David, I think we agree. I just want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for three years of “Greek-related courses.” My vision for exegesis courses is that they would be conducted *in Greek*. That is, all discussion of the passage would have to take place in Greek. No English would be allowed in the classroom. In such classes, students would constantly be acquiring new vocabulary, as well as solidifying their grasp of morphology, grammar, and syntax. This is fairly typical for college language courses. The first 3 semesters are used for straight language study, while the remaining 2.5 years are filled with literature/culture/history classes conducted in the language.

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