[B-Greek] efficiency in classrooms

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Fri Jun 2 09:43:13 EDT 2006

I thank Eddie for his excellent questions and comments. They clearly
express some very widespread views. From from being a kiiljoy you may
lead to some clarification of common misunderstandings. Because of the
length, I'll respond within quotes for more direct responses.

On 6/2/06, Eddie Mishoe <edmishoe at yahoo.com> wrote:
> I certainly don't want to be a killjoy in this
> discussion, and the ones before it of the same ilk,
> but I think it should be kept in mind that trying to
> teach Koine Greek by speaking it (as best we can
> assume it was spoken), does not aid one in acquiring
> the "native" (cultural) aspect of the language.

This actually mixes three factors together,
fluency, culture and native language.
When a person learns a foreign language as an adult they do not become
native speakers. Period. That includes MODERN  languages as well as
This, in turn, provides a clue for a perspective-changing question:
Should they therefore not learn a foreign language fluently because
they do not become mother-tongue speakers?
Does speaking a language in a classroom aid learning? Absolutely. That
is why I cited that 90% quote from a second-language acquisition book.
Tweaking that quote could produce worth years of trial and error, but
the principle is reliable.

> We
> will always struggle with what kind of Genitive was
> likely to have been meant, a struggle native speakers
> would not encounter.

This reveals a common mixing of two kinds of skills/knowledge and how
students can be captured by their metalanguage. This may be clearer if
we switch to an English parallel example.
Consider "of"-phrases (the book of Job, the town square of the
city",etc). Let's assume that some English grammar book lists 47
meanings of English "of" phrases.
Guess what, even mother-tongue English professors will always struggle
with labelling in exactly which category particular "of" phrases
belong. That is because you are dealing with an abstract analysis of a
language and not the language itself.
Now consider German students who successfully learn to speak English.
Most of them would be baffled if you asked them which of 47 categories
an "of" phrase belonged. Most wouldn't care, either. so you would have
a group of English speakers who were not mother-tongue, made mistakes,
and couldn't label your "of" phrases. Was this a failure? No. Should
they instead have spent their time learning to label "of" phrases? If
they had, there would probably have been a much lower success rate at
achieving fluency, because the time spent on anaysis would not have
contributed to progress and the delayed progress and difficulty may
have encouraged them to drop out long before reaching a level of
fluency. (If the school taught them to label "of" phrases after they
developed some basic fluency with them, so much the better. Now you
have speakers who might be able to function in the English grammar

> the outside. We may FEEL a few words or phrases here
> and there, but not the language itself,

Well, that is one very early level along the trajectory of
internalizing a language. Hopefully, they go far, far beyond that.

>and being able
> to reproduce the 'sound' of a language does not aid in
> understanding the 'meaning' of a language.

Absolutely true. Otherwise, a person speaking with an accent would be
deemed "not to have understood".

> What we
> can't do now that Koine has come and gone is immerse
> ourselves in the culture (that is where language
> acquisition comes from).

Yes, Koine has come and gone, but acquisition is not limited to
immersion in a culture. Again, If that were true then it would be
impossible to fluently learn any language in a classroom.
[Tell the Department of State to just give up, and tell them that
those listeners that they used to post in the Ararat mountains of
Turkey during the cold war, could not be listening in to pilots
chatter on their airplane radios. Tell them it couldn't, didn't,
happen. Tell the German departments of most US universities to just
pack up unless the students first live in Germany. And fire all the
professors who learned German as an adult since they aren't
mother-tongue speakers. And why are those non-mother-tongue speakers
speaking in class, anyway? (PS: to prevent a misreading here, I am
actually arguing that it is perfectly good to have a non-mother-tongue
German speaker in a classroom, mistakes included. I assume that they
are fluent. ditto for someone speaking Latin, today, or Hebrew in a
yeshiva 300 years ago.)

> Knowing how a word ought to
> be pronounced brings you no closer to understand how
> that word works in all its splendor, wonder, and
> cultural sensitivities.

Again, this is mixing knowledge about sound production with fluency.

> This is why a native Modern
> Greek speaker is no more closer to understanding the
> culture and language of Koine than one whose native
> language is English.

Actually, the problem is that the Greek languages/dialects are
mutually unintelligible without indepth learning. However, I do not
agree that they are no closer than an English speaker. They learn at a
much faster rate and a BA classics graduate of Athens can read circles
around a BA classics graduate of a US school.

> Once the culture is gone, it's
> gone. If professor A reads volumes of Greek
> proficiently, but does not pronounce his words
> correctly, and professor B reads volumes and
> pronounces his words correctly, why would professor B
> be any better off?

Apples and oranges, see above. The advantage would be if professor B
were fluent in the language. Then he could cover more ground in the
same time, would have developed a wider vocabulary, and would have a
better feel for other options of what was or was not expressed. He may
or may not write better commentaries than Prof A., that is
unpredictable and not directly related. However, Prof B will certainly
write better commentaries than he himself would have written without
the fluency.

> With the above in mind, I certainly would not
> discourage someone from trying to understand how a
> word or phrase, or even the language as a whole, would
> have sounded in Koine.

I am glad that we at least share a starting point where you would want
to discourage.
Again, the point is not the sound but the fluency. The problem with
people who spend 30 years using "American seminary" pronunciation is
NOT their pronunciation, but their lack of fluency, their lack of
ability to think in the language, to express themselves on a topic, to
discuss issues or texts over a cup of coffee in ancient Greek.
(profuse apologies to tea drinkers. For some reason our idioms revolve
around coffee. If purists want to jump on their being no ancient Greek
coffee, then let them fluently chat in ancient Greek while sitting
over some MAURON UDWR KSESTON. Fluency is the issue, not modern
realia.) If the professors in the discipline could control the
language like that, we would be having much more fruitful discussions
on this list and I daresay there would be more students and more
successful students in all of the language-based programs.

> One should not assume that by
> so doing this he/she will therefore better understand
> what it is like being a native Koine Greek resident
> steeped in its culture.
> Eddie Mishoe

I beg to differ. Someone fluent in the language will read more ancient
material, remember it better, and have a better grasp of
interpretative options than they would have, otherwise. In addition,
if they are anlytically gifted they will be able to do research and
write commentaries.
But note well: speaking a language never guarantees analytical skills.
Remember those German students above? There is no way to predict how
many of them would make good Shakespeare scholars, but all of them
will better appreciate reading one of his sonnets than they would have
if they could only categorize metalanguage labels and categories.

Hopefully, this clarfies directions and expectations.

   (and this may help you appreciate Acts 15:22)
   though it wouldn't hurt to see the word used elsewhere sometime.
See Josephus Ant 12:148
  if you are strong [parakeimenos "sxedon enestws"],
          it would be good
  I am well [enestws//EI ERRWSAI] even myself.

Randall Buth

Randall Buth, PhD
ybitan at mscc.huji.ac.il
randallbuth at gmail.com

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