[B-Greek] Try something (was Is this a good way to give students 'translation' lessons?

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Mon Jun 8 04:24:49 EDT 2009

mitch egrapse
> ... Yes, I think people can learn Spanish and subsequently "think" in Spanish as long as they are submerged in the culture or being taught by someone having been baptized in the culture. ...

> What I should have said is that people can not think in a "dead" language, regardless of what modern nuances we assign to the ancient words that appear on a piece of paper. When submerged in a culture, you can taste, see, hear, experience, touch, smell, cry, love, hurt, be afraid, angry, etc. all the words and phrases particular to that culture, but you can't immerse yourself in Koine Greek, if you ask me. Reading volumes of works, no matter for how long, always keeps you at arm's distance from the culture and their words/phrases/etc. >

This needs two questions in order to be put in perspective.
Is it possible to learn a language, any language, in a classroom? and
Is it possible to learn a language from a teacher who is a
'second-language user'?

If the answer to these two questions is 'Yes', then it needs to be
pointed out that inside of a classroom there is no difference between
a 'dead' language and a 'living' language. All languages are equally
dead inside a classroom. What works for one language inside a
classroom can work for another.

If the answer is 'no', then you need to let Middlebury, Dartmouth, the
Monterrey Institute, Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise, and a host
of other institutions around the world, know that they may return to
'grammar-translation' and leave this 'living language' stuff for
outside of the classroom. And/or they should fire any
non-mother-tongue teacher. This "logic of pessimism" can even lead
students away from learning a language at all. After all, they will
only be 'second-language users', non-mother-tongue, no matter what
language they attempt to learn as an adult.

But I have met people who have become functionally fluent without ever
visiting or living in a community where the target language was used.
And Francois Gouin, the infamous Latin teacher that I've mentioned on
list over the years has already argued the essential unity of all
languages and the essential learnability of all languages in a
controlled environment (classroom) provided that enough of a language
is known or accessible. For ancient Greek we have enough attested
language. (For Ugaritic and even First Temple Biblical Hebrew we don't
have a full deck of cards and some kinds of supplementation must be
worked out in order to reach a functionally useful fluency. We
recommend modern Hebrew for filling out Hebrew fluency since its
morphology transfers 100% to biblical, something not true for modern
Greek, unfortunately.)

Of course, I would argue that the answer to both questions in 'Yes'.
When I say ANASTHQI, PERIPATEI, ALLOY, STHQI to a student I am not
translating in English, or processing Greek grammar, and the student,
probably from  within minutes of starting to learn Greek is thinking
in Greek for these little pieces of communication. The teacher
instantly sees that the student understands if the student They will
learn how to parse the words later.

>I spent a couple of years in Greece. >


>Modern Greek students considered Ancient Greek to be a second language. It is very difficult for them to comprehend when they read ancient Greek.>

Certainly at the beginning.

> So much so, that they are not at an advantage over an English student studying the same ancient, "dead" language. >

Then, you haven't seen what I've seen.

> They thought, of course, in modern Greek, so they often were confused and couldn't get past "unlearning" their modern Greek words/constructs/etc. I didn't have that problem, making that another advantage as an English speaker.

>I was amazed at how hard Ancient Greek was for these native Greek students. Many of the native Greek students dreaded having to take Ancient Greek. They had an easier time with Koine/Biblical Greek, but even there I was amazed at how poorly these students, not GUMNASIO level kids, but PANEPISTHMIO level, understood Koine grammar and syntax. It was rather hard for them to diagram basic Biblical passages. >

First of all, a modern speaker does need several years of training
before they are comfortable with ancient Greek. However, a full
GYMNASIO and a Greek lit major at PANEPISTHMIO take them far beyond
what our classics programs do. Although even in Greece, they do not
try to learn to speak the ancient.
On diagramming, why were they trying to diagram basic Biblical
passages? It's not surprising that this was hard for them, even if
they had studied ancient Greek, since the same exercise would be
difficult for most English speakers of the English Bible. In any case,
the skill being tested is analysis not language use. From a
perspective of language pedagogy, something was probably lacking in
whatever the program.

> When talking with some of the professors of Biblical Greek, they often would say that they had a distinct advantage in understanding the fine nuances of Koine due to their having grown up in Greece. When I asked for some examples, they were not really able to produce any of interest, some of which they mentioned I had already read about in Advanced Greek Grammars. It reminded me just how much Greek had changed over a couple thousand years. >

The same argument can be used about why someone doesn't need to learn
Greek at all. You can ask a Greek prof to give examples of what they
get in Greek that isn't in a translation, and anything that they say
will be in that foreign language and can be said to therefore be
communicable without Greek. But the original language allows someone
to monitor every word and structural choice throughout. there is a
'texture', a spaghetti, that is part of the original, and not
translatable by nature of being a different language. That is
something every literature student wants to follow in any language,
but it is difficult to summarize and discuss 'outside' the system.

> Please don't take this as anything against your fine institution. >

We are more a program, or programs, than an institution. (Biblical
Language Center)

>I think you are definitely going about the study of Koine the best way available for us today. And perhaps I'm just over-reacting against the native Greek students and their inability to grasp ancient Greek. I was really expecting them to run circles around me.>

And those Greeks who would like to run those circles will be able to.
It sounds like they may have been put into a temporary, unnatural


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

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