Daniel Streett on Learning Greek

These points originally appeared in a comment on the previous post and Daniel Streett has given me permission to promote them to guest post status. Eventually, in the next day or so, I’ll be providing some follow up of my own.

1) Since I started teaching communicatively, I have probably heard every single argument against modern pedagogy that exists! I have concluded that more often than not defenders of grammar-translation end up arguing against any real acquisition of the language–often under the guise that it’s just too hard, or impossible, or too much work, or there aren’t enough resources, etc. I have really begun to wonder whether most Greek profs actually want to learn the language, or if they are fairly content to perpetuate the system and to continue teaching linguistics under the guise of a Greek/Hebrew course.

2) You are absolutely correct that this argument will be settled when we have enough people adopt a communicative method to be able to see the results of that method compared to the traditional pedagogy. I think over the next decade or so, we will reach a critical mass with regard to resources where we will actually have enough tools, textbooks, and supporting audio/video materials (especially with the advent of podcasting, YouTube and Skype) to see a great increase in teachers adopting a communicative method for Greek and Hebrew. In the decade following that, we will see the results for ourselves and I don’t think there will be any question as to which method is more effective.

3) I think the grammar-translation method has gotten a free pass when it comes to accountability. From the G-T classes I have taken (about 8 years worth in 4-5 different institutions) the following hold true: a) Exams test rote memory of forms, vocab glosses, or entire paragraphs of “translations,” b) Students are told almost exactly what will be on the exams so that the content is utterly predictable and requires no real understanding or comprehension of the language, merely a surface mastery of the metalanguage. c) If the student fails, it is his/her fault, not the professor’s and surely not the method itself. d) Some professors have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception when it comes to how much their students are retaining. The assumption is often, “If I covered it in class, the students *got* it,” or “If the student did well on the exam, he learned the material.” But, at my institution we tested students 1-2 years after they had taken Greek, and their performance on even the most basic parsings and translations was abysmal. They retained virtually nothing.

4) D&T are correct that most students’ goals coming into a GRK 101 class are not communicative. But, I think that the first major task of a Greek prof is to tell the students what their goals *should* be. We don’t let students write the curriculum, do we?

5) As R Buth has pointed out tirelessly, even Greek profs and “scholars” do not know the language. (For me, teaching Greek communicatively is a case of “Physician, heal thyself!”). If you want proof, I can show you the results of a little quiz I gave my audience at ETS, which asked them to give the Greek equivalent for 10 English words/phrases such as “yes” “nine” “yellow” “ball” “how are you?” etc. All these are first-week words in an ESL course, but in my audience, largely made up of tenured Greek professors and even authors of Greek grammars, no one got more than two our of ten correct.

7 thoughts on “Daniel Streett on Learning Greek

  1. In my undergraduate education I was grateful that the 2nd year of study was entirely reading and oral translation. We learned the basics and then got some real distance in reading the biblical text, which made the study of Wallace’s grammar in the third year much more sensible. Still, I regret that I have very little experience in Greek composition, and even less in oral communication.

  2. I am really enjoying this discussion on emphasizing a communicative method, and I do think it is something that needs to be stressed and developed, but I was also wondering if you see any distinction that should be made between learning a currently spoken language and Greek with this method. For example, the most common vocabulary could differ significantly since words like “apostle, temple, law,” would most likely be learned before words like “arm, hair, ball, etc.”

    1. Davis, those are only the most common words in a very tiny slice of ancient Greek literature (i.e. the NT) that doesn’t really represent the lexicon of the language as a whole. I think a Greek child would probably learn “arm” and “hair” before “apostle” and “law,” don’t you?

      BTW, no one is arguing that we SHOULDN’T ‘t learn “apostle,” etc (in fact, cognates are the easiest, as you might expect). I think we should learn all the words! It is simply easier to begin with concrete words that can be “played” with and used to internalize the language than to start with more abstract words like “grace” or “law.”

      Also, I wonder if we should claim to know Greek at any level if we don’t know how to talk about our arms or hair (or hairy arms!) in it.

  3. I would suppose that anyone who takes the notion of teaching and learning ancient Greek as a vehicle of real communication would already have looked at and listened to Randall Buth’s “Living Koine Greek” booklets and disks. Those who haven’t should take the opportunity: http://www.biblicalulpan.org/

    The sequence of scenes of peasant life and of everyday vocablary appropriate to that existence says much about how Biblical Greek vocabulary fits in with but is only a limited part of the language of everyday life in a Koine-speaking community.

    1. Indeed, and this fact points toward an extremely valid reason for learning the words like yellow, hair, arm as well as the frequent words found in the NT.

      The language of a people or time period also functions as a window into those people’s culture. So when we study and learn a broader amount of vocabulary we open ourselves up to better understanding the culture of its people.

      Danker’s study Benefactor is a good example of this (as is much of BDAG in general):
      Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field

  4. Hi!

    I am lucky !

    I came across your interesting blogs.

    As a mature student I am doing a PhD in Italy and I focus on inductive method of teaching ancient Greek (exspecially Athenaze” by Lawall and Balme).

    I studied grammar-based Greek at highschool.

    I would be grateful if you can give me suggestion about related bibliography.

    I have Classics literature/grammar grounded education, that is the compelling reason why I need to develop Linguistics and Second Language Aquisition theories so I am reading over (and reading on!) Krashen books and so on.

    Please write at my address marcoricucci@hotmail.com.

    Looking forward to hear from you,

    Thank you for your precious help and support!

    marco ricucci

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