Demand Change!

You say you want a revolution in Greek teaching? I do too! But what is needed to bring about such a pedagogical reformation? I think the history of foreign language teaching in the United States can give us some idea.

The Failure of Grammar-Translation
The grammar-translation method dominated the teaching of foreign languages in US schools prior to World War II. It stressed explicit teaching and memorization of grammatical rules, and translation from the foreign language into English. Sounds like Greek class, right? Well, it won’t surprise you that it was an epic fail.

How abjectly it had failed failure became especially clear when the US went to war against all the evildoers. The Captain Americas who had gotten A’s in their German classes at college couldn’t understand a Lecken of spoken Deutsch except “Heil Hitler!” Well, that may be overstating it a bit. They also knew the words for beer and bathroom, and probably a few cuss words. But, when it came to intercepting German communications or doing undercover ops, their Deutsch just wasn’t that gut, ja? You know, it wasn’t up to die Schnüffen, ja? And, the same with their Japanese, but to an even greater extent.

The Rise of the Audio-Lingual Method
Well, this clearly wouldn’t work, would it? Spies and analysts needed to be fluent. So the Army did their research and adopted a program of audio-lingual training similar to the Pimsleur method. No explicit grammar; no translation. Just good old fashioned speaking and listening, with a lot of drills. It may not be ideal, but it immersed the students in the language and, more importantly, it worked well enough.

The point is: there was an urgent demand for fluency or proficiency which the grammar-translation method could not meet. This urgent need led to rapid change in foreign language teaching in the US.

Che thinks the grammar-translation method is so bourgeois.

Where is the Demand for Greek Fluency?
Now, here’s the problem. Though I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I boldly predict the US will not be waging war against 5th-century Athens or 1st-century Alexandria any time soon. So, where will the demand for fluency in ancient Greek come from? In my opinion, it will never come from the teachers, who are not fluent themselves and have already invested careers and publication in service of grammar-translation. They seem, by and large, satisfied with the status quo. It will also never come from college or seminary administrators, who seem to be doing all they can to streamline their degrees and make education ever more “practical.”

Rather, the demand must come from the grassroots. College students must protest the current system, which leaves them at the end of a 4-year program sorely lacking in the kind of fluency expected of their counterparts in the modern-language department. Seminary students must revolt against a 3-year program that gives them just enough knowledge of the languages to be dangerous. PhD students in classics and biblical studies should be rising up at the prospect of 3-10 years of postgraduate work in ancient texts that leaves them unable to read fluently and for pleasure in those languages.

Until there is demand from students for a more effective pedagogy, we should not be surprised at the persistence of the status quo. Thankfully, the internet is a great aid to getting the message out, so I predict we will see a growing demand in the years to come.

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10 Responses to Demand Change!

  1. Γρηγόριος says:

    While I don’t disagree with the general idea, there is one hole in the argument. One of the reasons that the pedagogy of German and French were once based on the translation method is that reading literature was seen as equal to, and sometimes more important than, oral communication. The goal was to have students read important French and German literature, just as they did in Latin class. There were certainly many educated Brits and Americans who couldn’t have held a conversation in either language, but had read some of the most important works in both. I would probably agree that an active use of the language might make the path to the literature shorter and more engaging/enjoyable, but when I look at most modern language instruction today, I have to say that the baby has been thrown out with the bath-water. Literature plays a minor role, if any, in most classrooms. Since the ostensible goal of teaching Greek communicatively is to gain access to the vast corpus of Greek literature, we should beware the same temptation. Also, I think that it is important to recognize that, despite the problems inherent in the translation method, through it many people have successfully learned to read large quantities of Greek, Latin, French, German, and many other languages. As a classical philologist, I know many (virtually everyone in the field).

    • Dear Γρηγόριος,

      While it is certainly possible to transition from the GT approach to reading large quantities of Greek literature, I want to suggest that this is exceedingly rare among seminary students. The truth is that the majority of seminary graduates will have significant difficulty simply reading a couple of paragraphs of the Greek NT out loud. The emphasis of the teaching is almost entirely on meta-language and the idea of actually sitting down and say, reading the gospel of John in one sitting isn’t even considered. In fact, I know a former Seminary Greek teacher who has recently resolved to read ONE page of the Greek NT per day. Can you imagine someone with a B.A. in German resolving to read ONE page of Thomas Mann per day?

      Whatever pedagogical method is chosen, given the relative simplicity of Koine Greek, shouldn’t the goal be that students will be able to read entire NT books straight through? If the GT method can be made to serve that goal then I would be happy to commend it. But if the program of study doesn’t lead to reading competence, let’s change the method rather than the goal.

      Best wishes,


    • Gregorie, you are certainly correct that in the olden days, all L2 instruction was modeled on classical (Latin) teaching. (On a side note, you’d probably enjoy reading Latin: Or the Empire of a Sign, which shows just how ineffective and painful such Latin teaching was for almost all involved.

      On the issue of great literature in modern language classes, my research into modern language syllabi across a wide spectrum leads me to the opposite conclusion. Every class in French and German beyond the first 3 semesters was either on the history or literature of those languages, and usually both, since they are inseparable. All classes were conducted entirely in L2. Students were required to read large amounts of the great works. Now, of course, if you are referring to Berlitz courses or something like that for tourists, you are right, but I don’t really see the relevance of those for our discussion. As for ancient language courses, I really don’t see anybody tempted to minimize the goal of reading the literature–I can’t see that becoming a danger.

      On the issue of the link between oral-aural fluency and reading fluency, which you see as the “hole” in the argument, I’ve already addressed this at length (see here and here and here, so I don’t feel the need to go over that again here. I think your comment equivocates on the meaning of the term “read” (see my post here). You may disagree, but it would be good to engage the argument if that is the case. I took German and French reading courses in my doctoral program, and in my research I have “read” (i.e. translated or skimmed for the key points and then translated) hundreds of monographs and perhaps thousands of articles in these languages, but I would hardly claim anything close to reading fluency. Maybe I became close to a speed translator, but it is definitely not an enjoyable way to engage such works. There’s a reason all my advisers told me that if I really wanted to read German fluently, I needed to go to Germany and live there.

      Finally, even if we were to grant that some classicists had acquired true reading fluency through massive amounts of translation, I think we would both agree that is true of only a tiny fraction of all those who initially set out to learn the language.

      • Γρηγόριος says:

        Please don’t get me wrong. I certainly support speaking whatever language one is trying to learn, but I’m not dogmatic about it. I have seen many examples of people who know and read Greek and/or Latin very well without the benefit of the communicative approach. Certainly the number of people who reach that level are few, but so are those who reach fluency in any modern language. Yes, most college level programs for modern have literature courses after an initial introductory/elementary sequence, but in most instances these are timed to begin after the school’s language requirements are fulfilled (depending on the school, after the 3rd or 4th semester), i.e. once 90+ percent of the original cohort of students have dropped the classes. Those that remain are analogous to those that stay for upper level Greek and Latin courses, the committed, interested, self-motivated students (mostly majors) that usually do quite well.

        I’m also not sure that I buy the argument that reading a language that you do not speak is just fast translating. I think that volume of reading can develop the same instincts and expectations that one acquires from speaking and that are necessary for reading. I think that a properly constructed introductory text, e.g. Lingua Latina or Thrasymachus, can develop true reading skills with or without speaking, although speaking can provide additional benefit. Beyond the introductory level, this is even more true. It’s unfair to tell a classicist that has read a standard graduate level reading list in classics that he can’t really read Greek and Latin, but is just speed-translating. Also, I don’t think that the standard, one-semester, one/no-credit crash-courses in “Reading German” or “Reading French” bear any comparison to what takes place in a college-level Greek or Latin sequence, although seminary may be different story.

        I understand that most of the readers of your blog lament the sorry state of Greek instruction in seminaries, but do remember that seminarians once attained a much higher level of Greek abilities using the much-maligned translation method. One need only look to the many translations of Church Fathers prepared in the 19th century by men who had no degree beyond the M.Div. The thought that one of these would have been hard pressed to read a single page of Scripture per day is inconceivable. Seminarians could at one time be presumed to have studied Latin in high school, and possibly Greek and/or Latin at college. Their present-day counterparts will usually have studied some Spanish and taken a degree in Marketing. We shouldn’t be surprised of the results in the domain of Greek. Anecdotally speaking, I notice that many seminarians and students in Biblical Studies get caught up in the “metalanguage” of Greek grammar more so than students in a college-level Greek sequence because they are so eager to skip the hard work of learning a language and jump straight into the exegesis. The truth of the matter is that practice makes perfect. A classics undergraduate major will take many reading courses in various authors, while a seminary student usually takes “exegesis” course in which reading is subsidiary to textual/theological analysis. The difference between their reading skills at the end of 3-4 years is mostly a function of how much time was actually spent reading and translating.

  2. Mike says:

    I like what you say. I read through a book on Somali grammar and was then able to understand a fair bit of written Somali such as the news. But when it came to talking to people I couldn’t get past hello, how are you? It wasn’t until I adopted an approach similar to the Pimsleur method that I made progress in speaking and listening. So I certainly agree that we should aim for fluency and that grammar books don’t teach this. Could you though clarify something? Your example of the Americans and the Germans is to do with oral communication. Are you saying that Biblical Greek students need to stop learning grammar and start learning to speak Greek. Whilst it is important to be able to fluently and naturally read Greek I don’t think there is a need to speak and listen to Greek. In the same way that illiterate people can communicate well and fluently verbally is it not possible to be able to read fluently without the need to speak it? One thing I have learnt with Somali is that the best way to learn fluency is through massive comprehensible input, much l like a baby learns. Is it not possible to have this in written form and not in oral form?

    • Mike, let me point you to a post on this very issue: The basic answer is that true reading fluency requires an extensive and firmly established aural foundation. This only comes through lots of aural input. Once that’s established, fluency can be increased primarily through reading, since true reading involves the same neural processes as hearing (i.e., it’s like getting additional aural input).

      • some1 says:

        I can testify to this via personal experience. I’ve been working on my own computer program that is essentially a glorified flashcard program. At first, I used only the written text, alternating between Greek and English being presented. Regarding the Greek, even though I could “sound out” the Greek words very well in my head just by reading the words, when I finally transitioned to recording audio of those same Greek words so I could hear the word aloud as I memorized, my retention of the vocabulary increased by (a conservative estimate) at least 25%. And this even though I was the one who recorded the Greek audio myself, so I already “knew” how it was supposed to sound when I read it. Having both visual and audio together isn’t *necessary*, but it certainly makes learning it *easier.*

  3. τὸ μὲν τρέπειν οὐ ζητῶ, ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον τὸ τρέπεσθαι.

  4. Tim says:

    No-one seems to have mentioned what I regard as the primary reasons for the woeful Greek in seminaries. It’s essentially that many of the students in the Greek classes have no real desire to learn Greek; they do it simply because the course requires it, or because it’s an ordination requirement for them, or some other similar reason.

    My understanding is that theology/divinity was originally a postgraduate degree; one would do three years of undergraduate training in the Arts, with Greek being a class which would be studied. Not only that, the teaching of Greek could build upon six or so years of the teaching of Latin in high school. I’m unsure if this is relevant in the US, but in Australia, most students beginning Greek don’t know what a participle is; they have to learn the linguistic terminology along with the Greek, thereby increasing the workload. The prior teaching of Latin meant that students could hit the ground running in many ways. Also, any students incapable of Latin would not be in the course; all of this would mean that the Greek course could move faster, and it was also taught for three years, so by the time one *started* a theology degree, one already had three years of fast-paced Greek under one’s belt.

    This educational system is no longer in place. The reasons for this are many, but I think one of the main reasons is that it was recognised that a facility with languages is no predictor of a fruitful ministry; the student in my theological college who I expect will probably be pastorally better, and have a more fruitful ministry than the others, actually struggles more than most with the languages; he maintains enthusiasm for the languages, but is just an ordinary chap, not a language brain.

    Anyway, my opinion is that seminaries should offer, for those students who wish it, a combined Hebrew/Greek language and literature degree, as a precursor to their theological degree (possibly with a linguistics options, for the benefit of translator-missionaries). This would mean that those students who wished to spend three years in training, and then get straight into their ministries could still do so, but that those who wished to get the languages down before studying their theology would also have that option.

    Anyway, just my two bits worth.

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