[B-Greek] fluency

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Mon Oct 1 03:27:09 EDT 2007

In the thread on McDuff
Mitchell egrapse
> and thus you will be able to read more in Greek
> which it what really does help you gain fluency in a so called dead

I would like to partially agree and to clarify.
Yes, reading does help with fluency in a language. It also helps with
vocabulary absorbtion. I would guess that at least half of one's vocabulary
in a first language is learned through reading, sometimes much more.

On the other hand, reading by itself does not lead to fluency. Reading needs
to be based on top of a fluent, rapid oral ability in the language. There is
psycholinguiustic evidence of an acoustic infrastructure in the brain that
is accessed when normal reading takes place. Without that infrastructure the
reading process cannot access it and will build something else 'in the air',
or spend alot of background processing energy detrimental to comprehensible,
in-depth reading.

We need to be careful to compare apples with apples here. when I talk about
an acoustic infrastructure I am not talking about an ability to sound out
syllables by a reader. I am talking about something that has been built into
a much deeper, unconscious network in the brain.

Perhaps it will help to define 'fluency' in common sense ways and away from
a discussion of ancient Greek. If someone says that they are fluent in
German, one would expect to be able to attend a lecture on a topic of
interest in German. If a person attended such a lecture and reported that
they parsed the first two verbs and heard the word "China" somewhere in the
middle along with hundreds of 'die's and 'ist's, that does not count as
fluency or fluent communication.

Two examples:
I was recently on KWS and had a delightful meeting with another foreign
classisist and a local classic-historian. The shared language of
conversation was French, though the mother-tongues represented were
English-2 and Greek-1. It was nice to be able to get a succinct account of
Jewish communities on the island in the Hellenistic-Roman period. (You will
remember that Paul spent a night there (Act 21:1). After the conversation my
wife remarked, maybe like the boy in the story about the emperor's clothes,
about the irony of our speaking French. Simple answer, three people
interested in Greek antiquity could not communicate with each other in
ancient Greek, despite PhDs. None of us were particularly interested in
French, but we could use it. That does not speak well about how our Greek
education system is built.

Second example:
Fluency in the language would mean that a person could listen to a chapter
of Josephus, Epictetus, or Acts, and follow at normal conversational speeds.
On the other hand, fluency does not mean 'mother-tongue'. We cannot hide
behind the lack of mother-tongue speakers as an excuse for not training
towards fluency. (For 1700 years Jewish communities had persons fluent in
Hebrew without a mothertongue speaker, but they could use the language and
communicate in it as second-language users.) As I mentioned in the
beginning, reading certainly helps and is a major factor in this. But
without rapid use of the language, true fluency will not be built, ever.

It is this last point that should be remembered when evaluating Greek
materials. It sounds nice to say that such or such a book will lead to
fluency, but saying the words doesn't make them true. What is needed for our
field may be at right angles from what people are imagining or practicing.
I'll come back to this topic in a couple of weeks.

Randall Buth
Randall Buth, PhD
χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη πληθυνθείη
שלום לכם וברכות
ybitan at mscc.huji.ac.il
randallbuth at gmail.com

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