[B-Greek] Ancient Greek Grammar, confusion of goals?

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Wed Mar 1 04:31:22 EST 2006

A posting to the list didn't seem to go thru so I am resending. I've
changed the subject line a bit in order to refocus the discussion. the
post follows:

Donald egrapsen:
>Given your definition of acquisition as a technical term, then
acquisition of Biblical Hebrew is impossible>.

First, the term 'acquisition' is not mine but taken from the field of
SLA "second language acquisition".

The pessimism expressed may be confusing 'acquisition' with
"mother-tongue production". (Of course, there is no such thing as
mothertongue production of ancient Hebrew or even Shakespeare, but
there is light at the end of the tunnel.)

The important point is in another direction and often missed
-- for an adult second language learner of any and every language
(modern ones included), though they do not become mother-tongue
speakers, they can "acquire" the language and interact in the language
fluently, that is they think about what they want to say in the
language and the words come out unconsciously-formed. Please note:
they certainly make mistakes throughout their whole life, but they are
fluent, they can swim in the language in ways that those not fluent
cannot. There are also levels of fluency, from basic living, to
professionally competent, to near-mother-tongue. (The last typically
takes 5-10 years of using a language, and many adults happily
freeze/plateau at lower levels. My gut feeling, having read no studies
on this, is that 2000-3000 hours using the language are necessary to
get into/approach the professional-competent level (depending on
language relatedness), probably making half a million jarring mistakes
along the way.) As for pronunciation, that is irrelevant to fluency
and internalization. A more important question is whether any language
can be learned in a classroom? Is it possible to learn/internalize
Russian fluently in a classroom in Minnesota? Is so, then NAI KAI TH

Back to the fluency issue, this also should not be confused with
scholarship. A person can learn to speak German, they are not thereby
Goethe scholars. But Goethe scholars should be happier and achieve
higher personal results if they fluently control German of at least
some dialect. I think most German departments recognise this and I
doubt whether they would see "German for reading" as an acceptable
equivalent. Francois Gouin certainly didn't.

Gouin jumped through all the traditional hoops with German grammar,
read through a whole dictionary more than once, and translated pieces
of literature but he could not think in the language, couldn't speak,
and recognized that some dimension was woefully missing. He then
developed/discovered the "series" method that Charles Berlitz renamed
and organized as the "direct method". I believe Berlitz is still in
business, despite the competition of myriads of public schools,
bookstores, and taped-language programs all over the world. Whether
that's good language teaching or not, it's remarkable business.

I would agree that acquisition of Ugaritic or Phoenician is impossible
because we don't have evnough of the language avaialble. As a rough
guess, I wouldn't want to work towards fluency in a language that did
not have more than a million words of extant text. Several million is
better. Coptic should be doable (Roman-Hellenistic Egyptian), I
haven't looked into it. I know a Coptic Institute in Egypt wanted to
do for Coptic what Israelis have done with Hebrew, but I doubt that
they will have the necessary incentive to pull that off. (And before
the latter issue arises, no one is claiming that modern Hebrew is
biblical, or is rabbinic, or anything else than itself. But its
morphology does transfer to the biblical dialect at over 99%, which
isn't shabby.)

Why do I champion this point of fluency for ancient languages? Because
I can feel in my own soul a tremendous gap in the way I read ancient
Hebrew and the way I read ancient Greek. After thirty+ years with
both, this shouldn't be. But so it was, and I'm finding the changing
of it quite slow. But at least I know I need to change. This year I
have pledged to speak with a neighbor in ancient Greek for at least
1/2-1 hour every day. After two months we are both feeling an
improvement and recognize the long road ahead. We've been there before
in other languages. It is doable, worthwhile, and I suspect that we
will not want to trade off whatever level we "acquire" this year. More
puzzling is the resistance in ancient language departments, but a
person has to do what they know to be right (Epiktetos).


Randall Buth, PhD
Director, Biblical Language Center
buth at jerusalemschool.org
and Lecturer, Biblical Hebrew
Rothberg, Hebrew University
ybitan at mscc.huji.ac.il

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

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