Setting the Bar at Fluency, pt. 2 (SBL 2012 Report)

This is the fourth and final post in my report on the annual meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature, held Nov 17-20 in Chicago. Here are the first, second, and third parts. The rest of this post is the second half of my presentation attempting to answer the question, “Where should we set the bar in biblical language training?” I welcome your feedback, questions, and suggestions.

Where Should We Set the Bar in Biblical Language Training? (continued)

The Goals of Ancient Greek Classes: The Status Quo
So, when we equivocate on the meaning of these key terms—learning, knowing and reading—we will find that our goals will be shaped accordingly. Basic Greek classes will aim at having students memorize and use metalanguage, translate texts into English, and memorize English glosses for isolated Greek words. Advanced Greek classes typically focus on even more detailed linguistic analysis of texts, or may in some cases require lengthier texts to be translated.

To illustrate, it may be helpful to look at a few syllabi from Ancient Greek courses and to compare them to their modern language counterparts. In preparation for this presentation, I surveyed numerous syllabi from Bible Colleges, Seminaries, Religious Studies PhD programs, and Classical Studies departments. I also looked at numerous modern language department course syllabi. Where is the bar currently being set?

Modern Language Syllabi
Let’s start with a representative modern language syllabus: a second year German Syllabus from the University of Texas. In this course, students are expected to do the following:

  • Write three essays in German (about 2 pgs each)
  • Give a 10-minute class presentation in German
  • Participate outside of class in German coffee hours and German club activities where German will be spoken exclusively; watch German films and listen to UT’s student-produced German radio show.
  • Complete lab assignments which include speaking, listening, writing and reading components.
  • Of most interest to us, perhaps, is that in addition to all this, students are required to read about 35-40 pages of German text per week and to answer (in German) reading comprehension questions.
  • Of course, classes are conducted entirely in German.

Scene from a typical German class.

Other modern language classes have similar expectations. For example, a third year German course at UT requires students to read one of Lessing’s works—which is about 220 pages long—in 2 weeks. Students must be prepared to discuss the work in class and to write response essays—all in German. That’s over a hundred pages a week of reading—in a third year language class. That’s what language education looks like when the bar is set at fluency.

Biblical Language Syllabi
How about Greek courses? I will not name names or institutions here, so as not to cause offense. One representative syllabus comes from an Advanced Greek course on Acts in a rather large graduate program in theology. The following may be observed:

  • Class is conducted entirely in English.
  • No composition, speaking or listening in Greek is required.
  • No lab time is required.
  • Emphasis is placed on minute linguistic analysis of the Greek text using English linguistics terminology.

What is the reading load for this class? Over the entire course of the semester, the class will “read” (by which we mean write out a translation of) Acts 1–10. To put that in perspective, that is about 32 pages in the NA27 (which has smaller pages than an average book), or about 2 pages a week, or less than 2% of the required reading in the 3rd year German class.

In my collection of advanced Greek syllabi, there was one “standout.” This course, designated Advanced Greek Reading, is taught at one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. In terms of weekly reading load, it was the most demanding of any Greek course I came across. It required an average of about 100 verses a week, which equates to around 8 pages of text in the NA 27. Please remember, the course was taught entirely in English, the reading (i.e. translating) was the only requirement, and this was the most demanding syllabus I could find!

It should be obvious: we are setting the bar pretty low in our Greek classes with regard to standards of reading fluency. On the other hand, and tragically, I think, we have set the bar very high in terms of memorizing, understanding and applying linguistic metalanguage. Students who would have no problem acquiring fluency in a second language find themselves failing miserably in Greek classes that resemble a math or engineering course more than a language lab. I think, for example, of one of my students who possessed native fluency in French and Swahili and near-native fluency in English, but was told after failing courses in Greek and Hebrew that he was simply not smart enough to learn those languages.

My Proposal
My proposal, which I have shared with this group many times over the past several years, is fairly simple: stop treating Greek and Hebrew as dead languages. Aim for nothing less than internalization, fluency, or communicative proficiency. Teach in such a way that students are immersed in the language and begin to connect the language directly to things and experiences, so that they begin to think in Greek or Hebrew.

Where should we set the bar? Perhaps this is a modest proposal or a good place to start: Let’s aim for the same level of fluency that, say, a slave in one of Paul’s congregations might have possessed. Such a slave was quite possibly not a native speaker of Greek but learned Greek as a second language. Nevertheless he was likely expected by Paul to be able to follow the train of thought as a letter like Philippians was read aloud to the group. Perhaps we can aim for our students (and for us!) to attain at least that basic level of fluency in the language, so that we could at least begin to hear and appreciate these ancient texts as they were meant to be.

Practical Challenges
I realize that there are enormous practical challenges to this. To begin with, the time investment required to achieve fluency is huge. The FSI estimates that you need anywhere from 600–1100 hours of immersive classroom training in the language to reach a reasonable level of proficiency. University modern language programs typically require far more hours in and out of class from their students than do seminaries. They also offer summer travel programs that allow the student to live in country. The faculty and curricular infrastructure to support Greek education at that level is currently nonexistent. But, it seems to me that instead of forsaking the goal of fluency and resigning ourselves to mediocrity we should begin to develop those needed structures and faculty.

The other option is to lower the bar even more, as many seminaries have begun to do by adopting distance and online courses, or moving to a “tools” approach to Biblical language training. On this method, the student is taught to do exegesis of Biblical texts by using helps and programs such as BibleWorks, Accordance, or Logos. This is a salutary development in one sense, as it constitutes a recognition that traditional methods of teaching Greek are failing miserably. As long as no pretense is made in these courses of actually learning or knowing Greek, I suppose they have their place. In fact, they may in the end serve to make room for a separate track of courses where fluency is actually the goal.

In conclusion, I think that for too long, we have contented ourselves with teaching about Greek, rather than teaching Greek, with translating rather than truly reading, with analyzing rather than understanding and enjoying. We have set the bar far too low, allowing our students to get a “little learning,” which, as Pope reminds us, is “a dang’rous thing.” It is time for us to raise the bar and aim for true fluency, to urge our students to “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

This entry was posted in Greek Pedagogy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Setting the Bar at Fluency, pt. 2 (SBL 2012 Report)

  1. Barry Hofstetter says:

    After seeing the picture of your average German class above, how I wish I had majored in German!

  2. Excellent article! I really enjoy your sense of humour with the pictures and images you put in. Today’s German class, and the Karma Chameleon post were hilarious : )

    I think this article gives an excellent explanation of why so many native Greek speakers have trouble in American -taught Biblical Greek classes. Even as a native English speaker, I find the ENGLISH vocabulary that must be learned to be quite overwhelming ( seemingly hundreds of terms like aorist, past progressive, declension, etc)! And, when the course is taught all in English – another stumbling block. Not to discount the idea that some native Greek speakers -like some native English speakers – don’t have a good understanding of their own language, and little Church exposure.

    Holy Cross Seminary (Greek Orthdodox, Brookline Massachusetts) does teach to a much higher level of fluency than described here. Our Priests (many of whom are not Greek, and do not comfortably speak Greek when they start) do not graduate speaking like natives, but are fluent and can conduct services entirely in Biblical Greek, read and/or recite the Gospels & Epistles, Prayers, Psalms & Hymns in Biblical Greek, and conduct conversations & make announcements in Modern Greek. I believe that they also can hear Confessions in Greek.

    But, I don’t know if they even touch Hebrew (our Old Testament is the Septuagint).

    I really don’t know how they do it!

    • Ms. Veggies, Thanks for the kind feedback. I really regret not taking courses at HCS when I was in Massachusetts (about 12 years ago) attending a school with an exchange program with Holy Cross.

  3. Paul Nitz says:

    Thanks much for your series on setting the bar. I’ve been following closely. Even at the end of an extensive Greek program, I would not anticipate that students would be very near the comprehension level of their fellow students in the German program. But what I do anticipate (from a program taught mostly by communicative means) is that what they know, they will really know and think and take as genuine language, not code. They will have confidence and the ability to learn more, because they have been having success in the classroom. After they leave our classrooms, with only a couple of reference books, they will continue to read and learn on their own for the rest of their lives. Best of all, they’ll want to.

    For extended comments, see my post at:!topic/ancient-greek-best-practices/xHiuPIU6BkI

    • I agree, Paul. As I said at the end of the paper, at the present expecting fluency from 3-4 years of Greek is unrealistic. But, that is solely because we lack the faculty and resources to have 3-4 years of intensive communicative class-time and extracurricular activities. It may take 50 years for the movement to reach the point where it could provide an experience comparable to that of university programs, but it’s certainly what we should be aiming for. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Paul Nitz says:

        What will shave off some time from 50 years is using the Internet to have an virtual community. The Ancient Greek Best Practice group (see link above) is intended to be a tool in developing that community, a watering hole for us us strange animals, Ancient Greek teachers.

  4. Πέτροσ says:

    Dr. Streett,

    Thanks so much for this series of posts. When I decided to learn Biblical Greek on my own, I decided that fluency was of utmost important. However, since there are no Greek courses in my area, I tried to learn online but learning fluency online is rather difficult. I bought Mounce’s BOBG and a few other grammars and, since English is not my native language, very quickly got bogged down in the “linguistic metalanguage. ” It seemed to me that Greek toddlers manage to learn Greek without knowing the parts of speech at all so it should be possible for an adult as well. I do have the FSI course and am working through some of the basics on and reading your posts has greatly encouraged me to continue with the goal of fluency.

  5. It would be great if a Greek Scholar would hook up with Middlebury Language Schools to offer immersion classes in Koine Greek during the Summer.

  6. δει ημας δυνασθαι γραφειν και λεγειν ταχεως Ελληνιστι. τουτ’ εστιν το μετρον. ου δει γραφειν καλως, μονον πολλακις.

    ■Emphasis is placed on minute linguistic analysis of the Greek text using English linguistics terminology.

    τουτ’ εστιν κακον. ωφελιμον ουκ εστιν. δει ημας παυεσθαι. μονον Ελληνιστι γραφωμεν περι της Ελληνικης.

    ωφελιμον ουκ εστιν.

  7. Stephen says:

    As usual, you’ve made the case so well that I have to play devil’s advocate in order to have anything to say. After the semester ends in a few days I intend to post some thoughts on my own blog.

    mvpcworshipblog, there are some Greek (and Latin and Hebrew) summer immersion courses, actually, though not at Middlebury. The Polis Institute (shameless plug) offers all three languages at various locations, Randall Buth at the Biblical Language Center offers Hebrew in Israel, and the Paideia Institute offers Latin in Rome and Greek in Greece.

  8. Joshua W.D. Smith says:

    A thought related to this question of what it means to “know” Greek:
    I was just reading Michael Kruger’s essay from JETS about the authenticity of 2 Peter. In addressing the vocabulary differences, he talks about the raw statistics of vocabulary differences in the two books–statistics that seem to impressively demonstrated 1 Peter & 2 Peter were not written by the same person. But then he goes on to highlight some very striking similarities of phrasing, ideas, and structure…I won’t summarize the whole thing here, ’cause that’s not the point.
    Similarly, I was reading an article about Romans 5:18 and the “one righteous act/righteousness of one” question there, and the footnotes seemed to indicate that the main argument for the meaning was simply the number of time enos is used to refer to a person, when reading attentively reveals a major syntactical difference.
    These are only two examples, but they lead me to wonder:
    What are the exegetical results of not reading Greek? If current Greek education only prepares folks to use tools like BibleWorks, to look things up and do statistical analysis, then what kinds of claims are going to be made or accepted that are not based on actual reading of the Greek text?

    Would this be another line of discussion for the Greek education question? Perhaps you might know of or be able to think of more examples where exegetical claims come from statistics and analysis, rather than reading…

    • Joshua, those are two excellent examples of what I see as an very artificial, overly mechanical approach to Greek. Were we to treat English (which we all speak fluently) this way, we would see how absurd such statistical and grammatical/syntactical arguments are. I just think that very few judgments like these on the basis of grammatical/syntactical phenomena can hold much water, apart from a really broad immersion in the original sources that would enable us to get a ‘feel’ for the language (and even then our judgments would not be as sure as a native speaker’s would be). I hope at some point to write a series of posts on this topic. Thanks for commenting!

      P.S. This is one of those areas where I think we do well to read the Greek fathers who had native fluency in the language and very well-read and sometimes make comments regarding style and authorship. Those judgments should be given more weight, I think.

  9. Pingback: Naming the Movement | καὶ τὰ λοιπά

  10. Pingback: Demand Change! | καὶ τὰ λοιπά

  11. Ryder says:

    This is fantastic. Having just taken Advanced Greek Reading I, I am going to take a directed study with the head of the Bib. Languages Department and my goal is to read as much really difficult Greek as I can, as every time I do that the NT seems immensely easier and just plain readable.

    Mango Languages is a language learning program that my library provides online. They recently added an “Ancient Languages Package,” including both koine Greek and biblical Hebrew, as well as Latin. This is a powerful course that aims at speaking and listening fluency. Very easy. Minimal English grammar terminology. The only downside (upside?) is that it is pronounced the same as Modern Greek.

    What would you say are the problems with using a Modern Greek pronunciation to achieve fluency?

    • Ryder, thanks for commenting. I have not heard of Mango Languages, but it sounds promising–I’ll look into it. As for pronunciation, I advocate using the Modern Greek system. I believe it is very close to what was used in the Koine period (where there were perhaps 2 more vowel sounds), and basically identical to the Byzantine era pronunciation. You might want to check out my posts tagged ‘Pronunciation’ for my views on the subject. Best of luck on your progress in Greek!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s