[B-Greek] Greek Reading Ability

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Mon Jun 1 06:36:09 EDT 2009

In light of the ongoing discussion about the best way to study
and teach Greek, I've created a poll at my blog, looking at how
well we understand and read out Greek *as Greek* without
recourse to English (or whatever your first language is).

The question is:
Can you read the Greek New Testament without translating in
your head?

A. Always
B. Most of the time
C. Rarely
D. Never
E. Of course! I'm Greek.

the question is potentially good, but complicated by the nature of
For example, tonight I am participating in a monthly gospel discussion meeting
where the discussions are in Hebrew and the gospels are in Greek. a Greek
verse or small paragraph is always read outloud by one person and someone
else always provides a Hebrew 'pre/backtranslation',
not for the purpose of communicating to a Hebrew audience
but to see what options were available in the background to produce
a particular Greek turn of phrase, or where Hebrew would have a real difficulty
'leading' to such a translation. At least four mother-tongues will be
in the room,
and everyone multilingual (3 or more languages, and maybe one
bi-mothertongue multilingual).

The complication with multilinguals is that there is usually choice
involved in a
language at any one time, but they also tend to default to a mother-tongue
for some private activities, like counting (depending on the language that they
studied mathematics in), talking to oneself in a sort-of
process. For example, as I stopped to feel what this is like and how
to describe
it, a Greek sentence and description popped into my head: TI ESTIN, TI POIW
kai TI AISQANOMAI? But Greek is at the bottom of the totem pole for my
thoughts. I then reverted to English for this paragraph. But even in English I
find myself 'double-thinking' for writing, that is, using a kind of
'monitor' in
SLA-Krashen-esque terms. So your question for a multilingual,
including ancient Greek, might be better phrased
"read in Greek when they want to."

A second complication is ambiguity in language. Perhaps you have received a
letter from a second-language english user and do not know what the person
meant by a phrase or a sentence, but you read the letter in englis? You read
in english, maybe its your mothertongue, but do not have 100% comprehension.
The same thing happens accross cultures separated by time.
A person can be reading the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew,
but probably in every chapter there is a turn of phrase or two
that strikes one strange or is not clear. One reads it in Hebrew and wonders in
Hebrew what it might have meant, how else it could have been phrased and
why whatever was chosen was chosen? In some poetry this probably works out
more to an unclarity per strophe with several little 'ahs' where the poet chose
something reasonably clear but unexpected. If looking for a commentary at
such points I prefer one in Hebrew, but these are not written in biblical, they
are either modern or medieval. We would take biblical, but they don't exist.
Maybe this is something like Shakespeare for English speakers. And there
is no 100% certainly, because neither the writer nor the original
culture can be
On the other hand, this is quite different from what typically takes place with
non-Hebrew speakers. There is no sense of being 'in the language' and the
questions about the text cannot be formulated instantly in any Hebrew
dialect. I remember a time when I was learning Hebrew and had already read
half the Hebrew Bible. I'm not sure how to describe what I was doing. I wasn't
translating and I wasn't 'in the language'. It was some kind of strange
artificial mix. Before I learned to speak I think I had roots pop into my head
because that is the way that I was mistaught. (This was before my last two
children were born and they are over 30, so it's getting hard to remember
accurately.) PS: roots are not wrong, they are even a word-attack skill
when meeting something new, just like in anyone's mother-tongue using
pieces of words to guess a new word. They just are not part of the thought
process in a fluent Semitic language.

getting back to your question, I think that the sophistication of the user will
play a large role in the answers. A monolingual may not have any real
second language communication to compare to and might call
"POLLA EDAPANA = dapanaw[/impf, autos tote]" thinking in the language. But
it's more like the strange mix I mentioned. At some point EDAPANA
becomes a word by itself. KAI OYDEN DE EDAPANWMHN. A person needs
to be able to move in a single step from one word to another.

And the speed of thought is amazing. A person can be reading something
and suddenly they are daydreaming about something else, probably in
their mother-tongue. the language boundary in a multilingual between the
mothertongue and an acquired second language is intertwined. These
are complicated psycholinguistic questions. Because of that, it is often
claimed that even a multilingual's mothertongue is different from a mono-
lingual user of the same language. It's a classic case of the observer
changing the enviornment of the experiment. In this case, the reality
actually changes.

so I'm not sure how to help, but the questions probably need to be
rephrased so that both monolinguals and multilinguals would be
approximating answers at the same order of magnitude. And A and E
should be merged. Moderns that haven't studied in a Greek high school
cannot usually read even the GNT with acceptable understanding.
But with reasonable training, they should certainly be A+E.

Sorry for the complications, but this is why they have skill level tests,
something essentially missing for Koine Greek. (John, this one is
coming down the middle of the plate for you.)


Randall Buth, PhD
randallbuth at gmail.com
Biblical Language Center
Learn Easily - Progress Further - Remember for Life

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